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The Holidays Can Be Stressful

The holidays tend to be a “season of stress” for many of us. There’s often too much to do, pressure to find and buy the perfect gifts, obligations to spend time with relatives who we’d rather not see, and an expectation that we will do it all with ease.

And on top of that, you may have the added stress of holiday travel, grief over loved ones no longer with you, and dark, gloomy weather that keeps you cooped up inside.

With all these challenges, it’s no wonder that our mental health can take a hit during the holidays. However, by making a few reasonable changes, you can preserve your emotional well-being during this stressful time of year.

Tips for mental health during the holidays

Tip 1: Maintain your routine

A routine makes it easier to continue healthy habits such as going to bed on time, exercising, and taking medications.

With all of the added holiday events, changes to work and school schedules, traveling, and having guests, it’s easy for your routine to go right out the window.

It may not be possible to maintain your entire routine, but you will probably find it helpful to ground yourself with one or two key elements from your usual healthy habits. This could be figuring out how to maintain an exercise regime while on vacation or prioritizing your therapy appointments during December instead of letting them slide when you get busy.

Tip 2: Don’t be afraid to say NO

If you’re a regular attendee of this group you know that we emphasize the importance of boundaries a lot–because they really do make a difference! Try saying no to things that you’re not interested in doing and don’t have the time, energy, or money to do. It does take practice to get comfortable saying no, but most people will understand that you have limits and priorities, especially when you decline in a direct and kind manner.

If you struggle with saying no or you’re starting to sweat just thinking of how to tell your in-laws you won’t be able to host Christmas dinner again this year…you may need some boundary brush up on how to maintain them! (Jump to the end to read more about maintaining)

Tip 3: Find ways to deal with loneliness

Loneliness is magnified during the holidays if you don’t have family or friends to spend them with or you’re missing a loved one due to death or distance.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for loneliness, but there are some ways you can ease the pain. For some, it may be to volunteer or find ways to get involved in the community, and for others, it might be creating new rituals that help you enjoy the solitude and give you opportunities for reflection and creative pursuits.

Tip 4: Spend time doing holiday-related activities that bring you happiness

We can all agree that many aspects of the holidays are stressful, but there are also many holiday traditions and activities that make us feel good. Spend a few minutes thinking about what you enjoy most about the holidays. How can you incorporate more of those activities into your schedule? (Sometimes it means saying no to the activities that drain you!)

Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Bake – Perhaps you have some special holiday recipes that you only make this time of year.

  • Decorate – Some people get a big happiness boost from putting up an elaborate light display, while others enjoy hanging all the ornaments their kids made through the years.

  • Give it to God – Attend church services, bible studies, and/or set aside time for prayer and connection.

  • Spread the Cheer – Volunteer, donate toys or food, or adopt a family in need.

  • Reminisce – Thinking about positive holiday memories, recounting childhood memories with your siblings, or looking through photo albums can promote happiness for some people.

  • Get in the Spirit – Enjoy holiday music, go to a concert, sing meaningful hymns or uplifting songs.

Tip 5: All things in moderation

Our physical health certainly impacts our mental health, so we need to be thoughtful about how we treat our bodies. It’s easy to overindulge in sugary treats, alcohol, and late nights during the holiday season, but doing so can leave us exhausted, irritable, and guilt-ridden. Try to enjoy things in moderation to stay feeling your best.

Tip 6: Connect with supportive people

Many people feel obligated to spend time with negative or unsupportive family members during the holidays. If you can, try to minimize your time with difficult or toxic people and spend time with positive people to help buffer the negative impact. Who are the supportive people in your life? When will you make time to spend with these supportive people? Face-to-face time may be ideal, but phone calls and texts work, too.

Tip 7: Let go of perfection

The holidays are filled with expectations for ourselves and others. Perhaps you’re chasing your tail trying to find the perfect gift for your mother or trying to decorate your house or bake cookies that look like the photos you saw on Instagram. Or perhaps you’re expecting your children to behave impeccably at your in-law’s holiday dinner. It would certainly be lovely if we could make the holidays turn out perfectly, but usually, these are wishes built on unrealistic expectations.

When we expect perfection from ourselves and others, we’re bound to be disappointed. Instead, we can set more realistic expectations and extend compassion to ourselves and others when we make mistakes or show up imperfectly. When we do this, we all end up happier and we can keep what really matters about the holidays in perspective.

Tip 8: Appreciate the little things

It’s easy to take the positives in our lives for granted; we all have lots to be thankful for if we train ourselves to look for what we have rather than what’s lacking. Creating a daily gratitude practice is an excellent way to stay mentally and physically healthy. A simple way to do this is to identify three things you’re grateful for each day – perhaps doing it right before bed or first thing in the morning.

Despite all the extra commitments and stressors this time of year, you can stay mentally healthy. Often it just takes a few small changes and freeing ourselves from the “shoulds” that trap us in obligations, traditions, and expectations that don’t work for us.

Adding these tips to your tool chest can put you on track to enjoy a peaceful holiday season that supports your health and well-being.

Maintaining Boundaries

Setting boundaries isn’t a one-time occurrence. You may need to repeatedly set the same boundary with some people. And you may need to identify some strategies to keep yourself true to your self-management goals. Below are a few tips to help you stick to your boundaries when the going gets tough:

  • Write them down. Writing down your boundaries can help you clarify what you want to achieve and why it’s important.

  • Consider what you’ll do if someone repeatedly violates your boundaries. We can only ask people to change their behavior—we can’t force them to change. However, that doesn’t mean you should tolerate hurtful or disrespectful behavior. Often, you can choose not to interact with people who violate your boundaries (or at least minimize your contact with them). For example, if your sister persists in coming over unannounced, you don’t have to open the door and have a conversation with her. Doing so undermines your attempts to set a boundary and lets her know that there are no consequences for violating your boundaries.

  • Practice. Setting boundaries is a skill, and, if you’re not used to doing it, it will take some practice. I encourage my clients to write a script before they set difficult boundaries. Rehearsing what you want to say (alone or with a trusted friend or therapist) will increase your confidence and skills.

  • Know your non-negotiables. We all have some boundaries that are deal-breakers. These are usually boundaries related to health and safety. But, it makes sense for some of your boundaries to be flexible. You might intentionally make an exception to a boundary for a special occasion, such as Christmas. Or you might compromise on a boundary with your spouse to ensure that you both get your needs met. Knowing which boundaries are non-negotiable will help you determine when flexibility is useful and when it’s conceding.


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