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A row of four yellow holiday ornaments with frowny faces hangs against a red background with sparkles of light, as a fifth yellow ornament with a smiley face swings into the others like a Newton's Cradle.

When the Holidays Are Hard: How to Care for Your Mental Health

approx. 8 minute reading time

It’s hard enough to deal with the stress and overwhelm of the winter holiday season when you’re excited for it and ready to celebrate. When the holidays are a time of grief, depression, economic hardship, or just deep apathy, every day can feel like a fight to survive until spring.

You’re not alone. The National Alliance on Mental Illness found in a survey that people who already struggle with mental health are very likely to see their symptoms get worse around the holidays, while people who don’t have diagnosed mental health issues are still overwhelmingly feeling sadness, pressure, stress, anxiety, and a generalized sense of “the blues”.

The reasons why a season that’s supposed to be full of joy, sparkle, and good company is so difficult are many and varied—lack of sunlight, financial stress, toxic family dynamics, crowded public spaces, extra labor, too many demands on everyone’s time. Holidays can be especially hard for anyone who’s recently lost a loved one, who is trying to get or remain sober, who has a disordered relationship to food, or who is severely ill or socially isolated. It’s ironic that the very celebrations that were meant to give us hope and happiness to make it through the darkest time of the year are often the thing that makes our pain worse.

It’s okay to prioritize your mental and emotional wellness throughout the holiday season, even if it means making some unpopular choices. Here are a few strategies for managing your mental health over the next couple of weeks.

When you do want to celebrate, but you’re overwhelmed by demands

What would your ideal holiday look like? What stands in the way of it? While you might worry about disappointing family members or friends, you have a right to decide how you do or don’t want to spend your time, and you aren’t required to participate in traditions that don’t mean anything to you.

  • See the people you’re excited to spend time with. If your birth family makes you miserable, it’s okay to tell them you’ve made other holiday plans, and then to make those plans with people who make you feel good. (That can be really hard to do, but it’s still your right.)
  • Scrap the make-work. People socialized as women especially feel the weight of holiday mental load and emotional labor every year, from writing piles of Christmas cards, to participating in cookie exchanges, to decorating, to managing the majority of the gift-buying and wrapping, to managing family conflicts and keeping peace. It’s exhausting! Take some time to think about which of those traditions you actually enjoy, and let go of the rest. Anyone who doesn’t like it is welcome to take on that work themselves.
  • Share the labor. Related to the last point, it’s often one or two people in a household who do all the holiday work. If that’s you, propose making your traditions more of a group effort if everyone wants them to continue; if it’s not you, offer to take on or take part in something your partner or family member usually has to do alone.
  • Budgets are a boundary too. Capitalism demands that we spend, spend, spend to do the holidays “right”, from expensive gifts to lavish parties. But the stress of taking on extra debt can kill any joy you might get from it, so go ahead and draw a firm line about what you can and can’t afford. It’s your money and your ability to manage your survival needs on the line.
  • Prioritize your sobriety. You aren’t the rude one if you turn down an invitation or leave a gathering early because people aren’t respecting your sobriety. No one has the right to pressure you into substance use or to decide whether or not they think you have “a problem” worth addressing. Your reasons for sobriety are yours alone, and you get to choose your safe spaces. If you’re hosting and planning to serve alcohol or allow recreational drug use, make sure you offer substance-free areas and festive non-alcoholic drinks– and let everyone know that pressuring anyone to imbibe is grounds for being asked to leave.

When you’re feeling tired and blue, whether or not you celebrate

  • Go ahead and hibernate. Our bodies want to rest in the cold months, so go ahead and take that nap or sleep in. If you have “use it or lose it” PTO from work, gift yourself a day off to lounge and snooze as much as you want.
  • Seek out some brightness. Whether or not you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, you might find the constant darkness depressing. Try to get outside when there’s sunshine. Turn on all the lights at home when the sun goes down. Look for a light therapy lamp.
  • Find your own joy. Skip the office parties and obligation open houses, and make plans around what makes you feel really good—including a quiet night at home alone with a good book or a Netflix binge.
  • Write it out. Journaling can give you a private place to vent, rage, mope, complain, and generally feel your feelings free of anyone’s opinions or judgment. Sometimes, it can help you articulate what it is you’re feeling at all. Once you’ve purged, you might find yourself digging into underlying feelings to work on, or alternately having ideas about things that would make you feel happier.

When you’re grieving a loss

It can be incredibly painful to feel the pressure to be “merry” when someone you love is no longer with you, or it’s the anniversary of a death or divorce, or you’ve lost something important to you such as your home, your health, your job, or a relationship. The most important thing to remember is that it’s okay to feel sorrow right now, and no one has the right to expect you to put it aside for their comfort.

  • You’re allowed to skip everything. If celebrating the holidays is just too painful this year, it’s absolutely okay not to. Let the people in your life know (or ask someone you trust to spread the word for you) that you’re not celebrating and you’d prefer not to receive cards, gifts, or party invitations.
  • You’re also allowed to be happy. On the other hand, if enjoying the holidays does cheer you up, you have a right to that happiness. It’s natural to feel guilty about laughing or feeling joy when you’re “supposed” to be grieving, but it doesn’t mean that the grief isn’t sincere—just that you’re giving yourself a break to feel other things as well.
  • Communicate what you need. It’s very likely that the people around you are going to feel very awkward and unsure how to treat you, and that could make you feel worse. Let them know whether or not you want to talk about your loved one, whether any traditions are triggering feelings about your loss, whether you want company, whether you need to cut back on holiday expenses.
  • Get professional support. If you’re not in therapy, it might be worth looking into. If you are, make sure you have appointments scheduled often enough to help you get through the holidays. Ask your therapist to help you choose strategies for navigating the holiday traditions that bring up the hardest feelings for you.

When you’re socially isolated

This is something that a lot of us are feeling right now as COVID re-surges and people are canceling holiday plans last-minute…but it’s also, sadly, a daily reality for many of us who don’t have family or community. The social aspects of the holidays can often be the most painful and loneliest ones.

  • Schedule some virtual communications. If you’re separated from loved ones by distance or due to illness, prioritize setting up video calls, text chats, phone calls, or cards/letters to help you feel connected. We all had a lot of time during the pandemic to experiment with ways to make these virtual dates feel special and fulfilling, so think about what worked best for you.
  • Find support online. One of the more positive aspects of social media is that people everywhere have formed groups, chats, and forums for mutual support over shared issues, or finding “stand-in” family such as the Stand In Pride International group for LGBTQIA+ people and allies on Facebook. Sometimes, even people in groups just for shared interests like thrift shopping will end up offering each other support networks. If there’s one that resonates with you, it’s possible that you could find some wonderful connection there.
  • Make someone else feel less lonely. Reaching out to a friend or colleague you know is alone for the holidays, joining a network to send mail to isolated people such as deployed military, elderly veterans, or prisoners, or volunteering to work at an event empowers you and brings joy to someone else who also needs it—a win all around.
  • Foster or volunteer with animals. If you’re in a position to take care of an animal or to spend time at a shelter caring for the animals, their boundless affection and joy at seeing you can be extremely healing. Plus, you’re offering loving care to an animal who very much needs human connection.

If you’re in a serious mental health crisis

When you’ve reached the point of self-harm or suicidal thoughts, it’s important to know that you don’t have to “tough it out” or “get over it” on your own. These times can be the hardest times to reach out to anyone, but getting the right support is worth making the effort. You are not alone and your life matters.

  • Tell your therapist. If you’re receiving mental health care, talk to your therapist about how serious your crisis is right now. Let them help you make decisions about what to do next. If you don’t have a therapist, and you have access to mental health care, ask someone you trust to help you find the right therapist for you.
  • Get a wingperson. Even if you have a great personal support network, you might feel too overwhelmed by shame, guilt, or worry about being a burden to be able to rally them. Instead, choose one person you trust, tell them what’s going on, and ask them to reach out to the specific people whose help and support you need.
  • Have a survival plan. In your most difficult moment, when you feel like you might harm yourself, have preparations made for the emergency steps you want to take. Set up a group chat with people who agree to be woken up at 3 AM if need be. Decide whether you’ll try a crisis hotline (not everyone feels comfortable using them; it’s okay if you don’t) and put the number in your phone if so.Talk to your therapist about how you can reach them off-hours. 
  • Use chat or text help. If calling a crisis hotline on the phone provokes anxiety, you can use the 988 Lifeline, the Crisis Text Line, The Trevor Project, or other chat and text-based support networks when you need to talk to someone.
  • Get people to check up on you. Ask trusted friends or family to team up to check in with you as often as needed so you don’t have to always do the reaching-out. This can even be multiple times a day if that’s what you need to get to the other side of crisis.

No matter what your circumstances or reasons for struggling, your decisions about how to deal with the holiday season are yours to make, and you won’t go wrong by prioritizing your own wellness over external pressures or toxic relationships. Even if you normally love the holidays and skipping them is giving you FOMO despite your dispiritedness, remember that there’s always next year to get back in touch with what you love about them. This year, rest, take care of yourself, and do what’s right for you.

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