Holiday Cheer?

Strategies for Managing Mental Health
Over the Holiday Season

The lights, the parties, the traditions, the gifts, the meals together—at the end of every year, people around the globe celebrate the holidays. Holiday music, decorations, and lights occupy nearly every public space, while commercials and social media offer a constant stream of happy gatherings and memorable moments. It is all meant to reflect a certain ideal, but it can also become overwhelming.

While the season can be a time of cheer and celebration, for many, the holidays can also be a challenge. From overscheduling, pressure to attend family events, missing loved ones, and financial obligations—the holidays aren’t always merry and bright.

According to a survey completed by the American Psychological Association, 38 percent of respondents said their stress increased during the holiday season. The National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 64 percent of individuals with a mental illness felt their conditions worsened around the holidays. Holiday stress can look and feel like it does at other times of the year: pervasive feelings of sadness or a depressed, irritable mood. But it can also appear as feeling more tired than usual or having difficulty concentrating. Causes can include a lack of sleep and proper exercise, overindulgence in food and drink, financial strain, challenges with family members, and unrealistic expectations.   

Managing holiday stress is possible, however, and individuals can plan for managing stress just as they might plan for anything else during this busy time. First and foremost, maintaining a healthy outlook is calibrating expectations. Kristin August, associate professor of psychology and health sciences with Rutgers–Camden and deputy editor for the journal Stress and Health, suggests approaching the holidays with a realistic attitude.

Dr. Kristin J. August, a health psychologist and gerontologist and director of the graduate program in prevention sciences, and associate professor in the Departments of Psychology and Health Sciences at Rutgers–Camden

Dr. Kristin J. August, a health psychologist and gerontologist and director of the graduate program in prevention sciences, and associate professor in the Departments of Psychology and Health Sciences at Rutgers–Camden

“Managing expectations is so important for mental health in general – including over the holidays,” said August. “People have high expectations for the holidays to be fun, memorable, and for everyone to get along. Trying not to expect too much from yourself or others can prevent feeling disappointed. Things don’t have to be perfect; they can just be ‘good enough.’”

Loss and loneliness are not uncommon emotions during the holiday season. It is important to acknowledge these feelings, especially if they’re tied to missing a loved one. “This is a natural reaction, and my advice would be to honor your memories and sit with your emotions; just don’t let your emotions keep you in a state of sadness and despair,” said Daniel Lee of the Rutgers–Camden Wellness Center. “Find ways to honor these important people in real-time and in your present experience,” said Lee.

Dr. Daniel Lee, director of the Rutgers–Camden Wellness Center

Dr. Daniel Lee, director of the Rutgers–Camden Wellness Center

Putting self-care at the top of the to-do list is another way to ensure a truly happy holiday season. “Take the approach that self-care is not selfishness,” said Lee. “You can make a healthy decision to protect yourself, have a great time, and love others, too. These actions are not mutually exclusive.”

In addition to finding time to exercise and get enough sleep, August recommends finding fulfillment through connection. “Spending time with others you enjoy—even virtually—can be good,” she said, but that is not the only way. “Research suggests giving to others is beneficial for well-being, and the key is finding activities that help balance out any potential negative emotions.”   

Those who do need help over the holidays should know that it remains available. “For people in crisis, they can dial ‘988’ to be connected to the National Suicide and Crisis Line,” said August. For those feeling overwhelmed, August recommends connecting with a mental health professional via a primary care physician. Individuals can also find help online through a variety of sources, including the American Psychological Association’s website.

Most of all, give yourself the gift of being present. “Holidays are natural touchpoints,” said Lee. “Allow yourself to touch and connect with others as you celebrate. That’s one of the purposes of love.”

Strategies for Managing Holiday Stress

  1. Accept your feelings. The holidays can bring up a range of emotions for people. Sometimes you can even experience seemingly contradictory emotions all at once. Give yourself compassion and allow yourself to sit with whatever you’re feeling.
  2. Maintain healthy habits. For many people, the holidays lead to a massive disruption in your day-to-day routine. But maintaining healthy habits like going to therapy, getting enough sleep and exercising are critical to keeping your mental health on track.
  3. 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. 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 with whom you may have a complicated dynamic.
  4. Make time to connect. Connection and meaning are critical to our mental health. Make time for your important relationships and connect with yourself through self-care. You can even connect with loved ones who are no longer with you through a family tradition or a personal remembrance ritual.

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness

Creative Design: Karaamat Abdullah