Tips for Maintaining Mental Health During the Holiday Season

Although the holidays are often a fun and relaxing time of year, they can be stressful and challenging as well. Research indicates that this is especially the case for individuals who already struggle to maintain their mental health; a recent study conducted by NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) indicated that a majority of people surveyed reported that the holidays make their mental illness worse. 

Regardless of whether or not you have a diagnosable condition, we could all benefit from taking extra steps to take care of our own well-being this holiday season. Here are a few tips to follow in order to take care of yourself and maintain equilibrium during times of added stress or challenge:

  1. Recognize Your Triggers.  If you notice that a certain type of task or interaction leaves you feeling overwhelmed, sad or anxious around the holidays, take steps to address that pattern. Can someone else do some of the cooking, shopping or decorating? Can plans be shifted or scaled back? Does that one family member have to be included in the festivities? Sometimes when a given situation pushes our buttons, the best solution is to remove or change that situation to give ourselves a break.  It is ok to say no to plans that don’t fit into your schedule or make you feel good, and to set boundaries with people who are difficult to be around.
  2. Attend to Your Needs.  Along those same lines, take stock of how you are feeling on a regular basis. When to-do lists get really long, it is easy to focus mostly on checking off each item as opposed to attending to oneself. Make it a habit to take stock of your emotional well-being at least daily. Label and rate the feelings you are experiencing. If you notice that your negative feelings are persistent and/or are growing, pause to evaluate what will help you to feel better.  
  3. Be Realistic.  We all tend to get swayed by Hallmark (and/or social media) fueled visions of the perfect holiday gift or family gathering. It is easy to forget that every person and every family has challenges, and that no situation is ever perfect. I always loved the friends of mine who sent the “outtake” pics on their holiday cards, because it was a reminder that those clean, smiling faces that we ultimately see never tell the whole story! Try to accept that nothing is all good or all bad, and know that if something goes wrong, that is to be expected and not a sign that you haven’t done enough.  
  4. Encourage Gratitude. Even amidst stressful times, there is always something to be thankful for.  Research has demonstrated that focusing on thankfulness and gratitude is very good for our mental health. The holiday season is always a good time to reflect on what is on your gratitude list, and to reach out and thank those people in our lives who have supported or encouraged us.    

Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, Ph.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist