How to Care for Your Mental Health During the Holiday Season

Caring for your mental health can be a struggle year-round, but some find the holidays especially triggering. These tips and tricks will help you stay grounded during this season and beyond.

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While the holidays can be a magical time—full of love, celebration, and joy—some find the season difficult. From holiday stressors and pressures to grief and loss, this time of year can be hard. The holidays can be overwhelming. But if you are one of millions of Americans living with mental illness, you may find the season particularly taxing. A 2014 study from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that the holidays made 64% of respondents symptoms worse. 

“For many people the holiday season is not always the most wonderful time of the year,” said NAMI medical director Ken Duckworth in an interview before the pandemic.

“The holiday season beams a spotlight on everything that is difficult about living with depression,” a Massachusetts woman who responded to the survey adds. “The pressure to be joyful and social is tenfold.”

So what can you do if you find yourself struggling during the holidays? How can you manage your mental health during the “hap- happiest season of all?” Here are eight suggestions to help you reduce stress and maintain good mental health during the holidays.

Make a Plan

Whether you plan to stay in this season or have a host of activities to attend, the first thing you should do is make a plan. Decide what you want to do, what you need to do, and understand the difference. “Recognize what your triggers are to help you prepare for stressful situations,” NAMI adds. And accept your limitations. You don’t have to say yes to every invite, for example, or juggle all the things. “It’s okay to say no to plans that don’t fit into your schedule or make you feel good.”

Honor Your Needs

Taking time out to care for and honor your needs is important. According to NAMI, you should be kind to yourself and put your physical and mental wellbeing first. This may mean scheduling downtime and/or time for activities that make you feel good. It might be reading a book, going to the movies, getting a massage, or listening to music you love. But it may also mean prioritizing alone time and/or creating new traditions.

Ask for Help

Are you planning to host the holidays? Perhaps you’re cooking for a family of four—or 14? Whatever your seasonal plans, it’s important to know you don’t have to go it alone. Ask for help, from family members and friends. Take shortcuts, when possible, and give yourself grace. For many, the bar is high during the holidays, and this can lead to undue pressure and stress (both of which can exacerbate pre-existing conditions). 

Keep a Routine

While routines are important year-round, particularly for those living with mental illness, maintaining normalcy is key. Make sure you eat and sleep well, attend your therapy and/or doctor's appointments, and schedule time to exercise, be it runs, walks, bike rides, yoga, or other activities. “Taking care of your physical health can help stabilize your mood, reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, and improve long-term mental wellbeing,” says Mental Health First Aid (MHFA).

Avoid Drugs and Alcohol

When it comes to the holidays, it often seems like food and drinks go hand-in-hand. The two are inextricably linked. But it’s important that those living with mental health conditions avoid drugs and alcohol, as these substances contain chemicals which alter your brain. 

Set Boundaries

Another way to manage your mental health during the holidays is to set boundaries. “People like to be generous during the holidays, but that generosity doesn’t have to come at the expense of having healthy boundaries,”  says NAMI. “If hosting an event or buying an expensive gift is too stressful, it’s OK to say no. It’s also OK to limit the time you spend with family that you may have a complicated dynamic with.”

Take Medication As Prescribed

If you’ve been prescribed medication for your mental health condition, it’s important you take it as prescribed. “People should not stop taking a prescribed medication, even if they are feeling better, without the help of a healthcare provider,” the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains. “Stopping a medication too soon may cause unpleasant or harmful side effects.” It can also cause you to relapse if you have a mood disorder, for example, or other like condition.

Find Support

Whether you are dealing with depression, anxiety, a mood episode, or just seasonal stress, it’s important to talk to someone if you feel overwhelmed. Friends and family can be great pillars of support. Mental health professionals are also instrumental in helping patients manage their conditions. (If you already see a therapist, keep it up.) There are also numerous free mental health resources available. Crisis Text Line, for example, is a text-based mental health service which puts individuals in touch with trained counselors 24 hours a day. It is designed for those who are in crisis and/or are experiencing emotional distress. 

Not sure where to begin? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a thorough listing of hotlines, warmlines, and other like platforms. 

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