Maintaining Your Mental Health During the Holidays

By Amalia Sirica, LCSW

The holidays are commonly portrayed as a time for cheer and togetherness, but what if all is not shiny and bright? Research shows that the holidays can be a difficult time for many. Not to mention that the winter months of reduced sunlight lend themselves to feelings of low mood. This can often create feelings of isolation especially when the holiday message is that we should be grateful and full of joy at all times.

Holiday Mental Health Statistics

The National Institute on Mental Illness cites the following holiday mental health statistics:

  • 64% of people with mental illness report holidays make their conditions worse
  • 66% have experienced loneliness, 63% too much pressure and 57% unrealistic expectations.
  • 55% found themselves remembering happier times in the past contrasting with the present.

Additionally, the American Psychological Association found that 38% of survey participants said their stress level increased during the holiday season and 56% of respondents reported they experienced the most amount of stress at work.

These statistics demonstrate that many people struggle during the holidays, and perhaps more so due to social pressure and a busier schedule with more obligations. If you are struggling with the holiday blues, you are not alone.

How the Holidays Impact your Mental Health

Unrealistic Expectations

Unrealistic is defined as “inappropriate to reality or fact.” As human beings, we often create unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others and this can increase during the holiday season. During the holidays, we may find ourselves overextending to meet the perceived needs of others.

Planning for joy and celebration is beautiful, but remembering that things may not always go to plan allows us to keep our expectations in check. Having realistic expectations of ourselves and others will make it more likely that an enjoyable time can be had by all.

Financial Stress

Finances can be a difficult topic during any time of the year, but even more so during the holidays. This is another place where we tend to overextend, potentially creating resentment and adding further stress to our lives. We might feel pressure to buy every single person a present, or to buy bigger or nicer things than someone else or to make grand gestures to demonstrate our love and loyalty.

But this is where examination of motives becomes important. Are we giving from a genuine place of ability and generosity? Or are we overextending? Generosity is a beautiful thing, but should also have its limits. A holiday budget with firm limits might be helpful here. In this way, we can show up with generosity without putting ourselves in a financially precarious position that can persist after the holidays are over.

Spending Holidays Away from Family

Many of us experienced separation from our families during the pandemic and might still be unable to join with family this year. This can certainly make the holidays feel a little more somber. Spending the holidays away from family can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation, so it’s important to surround yourself with community as much as possible.

If possible, consider making plans to spend time with other loved ones like friends or a partner. If you are new to your city, you can likely find events to join on social media or other apps like meetup, and it is unlikely that you will be the only person in this situation. If you’re uncomfortable meeting others in person, consider virtual ways to stay in touch with family and friends. This could be as simple as a phone call or utilizing video conferencing options like Zoom.

Holiday Travel

Holiday travel was already quite stressful pre-pandemic and has become even more with new and changing rules and regulations. If you are traveling with family and small children, this becomes all the more apparent. Busy holiday airports have stress in the air. So what can be done? We can take some time for ourselves in the moments leading up to holiday travel to pause, meditate or participate in other activities that make you feel calm and grounded.

Making time for self-care pre- and post-trip will make it more likely that we can be present and centered with our loved ones during the holidays.

Overindulgence

Overindulgence happens. It happens in our day-to-day lives as well, but during the holidays it seems like there are delicious treats and that temptation is suddenly everywhere. The goal is balance. We do not want to deprive ourselves, but at the same time, overindulgence will certainly add to feelings of holiday stress. It can also lead to feeling sluggish and can affect the quality of our sleep. That said, shame and guilt will not change anything. So, if you have had a few too many days of overindulgence, the best thing to do is to start making small changes and getting back on track.

Maybe a walk in the morning to reintroduce exercise or small changes in diet. The important thing to remember here is that you are not alone and many of us let our self-care practices lapse during the holidays. This can certainly make it more difficult to manage the stress of the season and it is important to stay mindful of the way that we are treating our bodies.

Poor Self-Care

The difficult thing about self-care is that we often need it the most when we have the least time for it. The holidays are a prime example of this dilemma. As mentioned above, there is a tendency to overextend and it is hard to find time for ourselves. Generally, this gets harder as the day goes on and gets busier, so it can be effective to carve out some time first thing in the morning before the day gets hectic.

Everyone’s self-care practices will look a bit different, and it may require some trial and error to figure out what works best for you and your body. The important thing is that you are doing your best to pay attention to your body and its signals when it lets you know that it needs rest and care.

Lack of Sleep

There are many factors that can affect our sleep, but stress, diet and environment contribute significantly. All of these contributors are affected by the holidays. Increased stress, overindulgence, travel and changing environments rapidly can lead to us feeling run-down. All of this can result in a feedback loop where we get stressed, the stress affects our sleep, and then we get more stressed because we aren’t getting enough sleep.

There are several actions that we can take that can help to improve our sleep quality. Including but not limited to: exercising (earlier in the day if possible), eating lighter evening meals, and limiting caffeine and alcohol intake too close to bedtime. Pre-bedtime meditation, practicing a few gentle yoga poses or using sleep sounds, like those available in Nobu, can also help prepare the mind and body for restful sleep.

COVID-19

It is important to note that we are still coming out of a global trauma event. A global trauma event is a traumatic event that the whole world experienced. And we are now being asked to move back into the world, almost as if nothing happened. If you are finding this difficult to do, you are not alone. The holidays may feel particularly bizarre this year against the backdrop of what we have all just experienced.

Remembering too that all of us experienced the pandemic differently, depending on a variety of factors. For example, it is possible that someone lost a loved one during the pandemic and this might be the first time that they are celebrating the holidays without them. And maybe celebrating feels wrong. All of these feelings are valid and understandable. It is important to remember that despite external pressure, nobody is required to be happy and cheery all of the time.

Getting Help for Seasonal Depression

According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 5% of adults in the United States experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). And about 10% to 20% of Americans may get a milder form of something called the “winter blues.” Seasonal Affective Disorder may be triggered by the time change, or by a Vitamin D deficit as a result of less sunshine. Symptoms include sadness, irritability, feelings of hopelessness, and loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.

Struggling with feelings of sadness and depression can be a challenge at any time of the year, but present particular difficulty during the holidays. Again, there is incredible pressure over the holidays to present as happy and grateful, something that is not always easy for a variety of reasons.

Remember that it may be particularly difficult this year as we attempt to transition back into “normal” life following COVID-19. This coupled with the fact that generally rates of depression are higher during the winter months due to the cold and less daylight, and it is no wonder that the holidays may not be a happy time for everyone.

Compassion is key, both for ourselves and for others. Check in on your loved ones and try to let people know when and if you are struggling and need support. Try to remember that you are not alone and that many of us struggle with these experiences and emotions during the holidays. Be gentle with yourselves and with each other.

If you or a loved one is struggling with symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, there is help available. You could start by checking out the resources available on the Nobu app. It has been shown that psychotherapy, medication and exercise can help to improve the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

nicole laneve

Edited by – Nicole LaNeve

Nicole leads a team of passionate, experienced writers, editors and other contributors to create and share accurate, trustworthy information about drug and alcohol addiction, treatment and recovery for The Recovery Village and all Advanced Recovery Systems sites… Read more.

Written by – Amalia Sirica, LCSW

Amalia Sirica is New York State Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a writer. She has spent the last ten years working with children, young adults and adults of all different backgrounds and experiences. She received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Duke University, and her master’s degree in Social Work from New York University… Read more.

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Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.