The holiday season presents a lot of challenges for everyone. It’s a time of year focused on family, love, and connection, but stress, consumerism, loneliness, and a bunch more unpleasant feelings like to mix themselves in with the merriment. Although each person can probably identify a stressor that prevents them from fully enjoying the holidays, us living with mental illness have an even harder time.
Sometimes it’s spending a holiday with family and friends that can be overwhelming. We may love our company, but that doesn’t mean we find it easy to be extroverted for days or weeks. It can lead to a lot of very real stress and anxiety.
If we find ourselves without a posse or family to celebrate the season with, the holidays can also bring up intense loneliness. Combine this with depression, seasonal affective disorder, or other mental health concerns, and loneliness can create an overwhelming cocktail of emotion.
To prevent both types of overwhelm, here are sixteen ways you can help yourself this holiday season, even if you struggle with a mental illness. If it’s just general stress you face, these techniques will help you too! You deserve to enjoy your holiday.
If you’re traveling and spending time with family and friends:
Schedule alone time
Having a mental illness means we need to check on our needs more often than someone living without mental illness. To adequately do this, we need space and time to reflect on how we’re feeling and tend to anything we realize is amiss.
Strategies like going to bed early (if you have a private room), or staying up late (if the house becomes quiet), can provide some alone time in the midst of all the socializing the holidays bring. Napping or taking a meditation break during the day is another great solution that works for a lot of people (these are my personal favorites!). Taking a bath, going for a long walk, journaling, or a myriad of other activities are also fantastic ways to find the space you need to take care of yourself.
Communicate Your Needs
We can schedule hours of self-care time, but none of this will happen if we don’t communicate that we need it to be time for just ourselves and our mental health. If our family sees us randomly disappear, they may become curious, worried, or try to check in on us—which is often the opposite of what we want in that moment. Having a cue you can communicate to a trusted family member or friend that allows you to exit any overwhelming situation can be extremely helpful.
It can also be helpful to have a discussion about your needs before visiting family or having a gathering with friends. Some groups are better at listening to this than others, so it’s not a fail-proof technique, but if we want alone time and don’t communicate it, then it has a much higher chance of not working in our favor.
Practice setting boundaries
If we want to increase the effectiveness of our communication, we can practice setting boundaries. First, think of the excuses or phrases your family may say about your mental illness and needs. When you think about these phrases, come up with a list of ways you can counter what your family may say.
Sometimes, setting a healthy boundary can be as simple as “I need to do this right now” and leaving. Sometimes, it requires more finesse. You know your holiday crowd the best, so take some time to brainstorm before the season starts!
Another important part of this is ensuring you don’t take on too much work. The holidays require cleaning, cooking, gift buying, and lots of other common traditions that can quickly become overwhelming. As the type of person who loves to help out, I’ve often found myself exhausted by all the tasks I said I’d assist with. This exhaustion prevents us from having the energy we need to manage our mental illness and actually enjoy our time this holiday season. So, before saying yes to every request, ask yourself if you have the energy to do it.
Create a Support System
We can find a lot of benefit in season-specific support systems (say that five times, fast!). If we’re traveling, we may not have access to therapy, but we might have wifi, so exploring online communities may be a helpful back up. If crisis hotlines are something that works for you, keep them as contacts in your phone for easy access. We can also write a specific plan of “if this happens, this is what I’ll do” to help prepare us for any extra-bumpy parts of this holiday season.
To inspire you, here are some great supportive resources: meditation apps (like Headspace), support groups in the area you’re traveling to (check out meetup.com), and online counseling like this or this.
Have a Grounding Object with You
There is a reason security blankets comfort kids, and there is a reason “touch stones” are a common mindfulness technique. Both help create a feeling of centeredness and calm. When we have an object that’s sole purpose is to comfort or ground us, it’s very effective at making that happen. Anything from a stress ball to a seashell to a piece of fabric can work.
When you use a grounding object, the point is to carry it with you into stressful situations (or have it on you all the time). Ideally, it should be able to fit your a pocket, so it’s something you can hold or touch discreetly when you need to remind yourself that everything is, or will be, okay. It’s a great way to distract yourself from any present anxiety and stress.
Escape to the Bathroom
One of the scariest parts of many mental illnesses is the unexpected symptoms that arise out of nowhere. With my own panic attacks and sensory overstimulation, I’ve had this happen in very inconvenient situations. It can also be embarrassing to panic in front of others and embarrassment is not a great help when it comes to mental health.
Sometimes, we’ll get a minute or two heads up that a panic attack or other symptomatic episode is about to happen. This is the perfect time to run to a private room or, best yet, the bathroom. The bathroom is a place of privacy and no one will ask you what took you so long (or, if someone does, you can play it off as something like fixing how you looked, getting a breather, or a little indigestion). More often than not, the locked door of a bathroom can create a sense of security so you can manage the symptom, wait for it’s natural duration to end, or prevent the symptom entirely.
Have a grounding exercise
Similar to the grounding object, you can also create a specific exercise to help find a sense of calm in the midst of emotional turmoil. Families and friends are often capable of triggering symptoms without even realizing it, so it’s vital we have a way to cope with sudden stress and anxiety.
These two techniques have helped me more times than I can count and the best part is that no one will notice you’re doing them. The first is a simple breathing exercise: fill your abdomen, fill your chest, fill the space by your collarbones. Then exhale in a pattern of three as well. Breathing this way actually calms our nervous system, which quickly lowers anxiety.
The second exercise is great if you’re too overwhelmed to focus on breathing calmly. To ground this way, go through each sense and find five things you notice with it. For instance, ask yourself “what are five things I smell right now? what are five things I taste right now?” and so on.
Plan for time to decompress and heal after
Even when we have a fantastic holiday season with people we love, it disrupts our natural day-to-day routine. This sense of stability, for many people, is something essential to maintaining their optimum level of mental health. For this reason, we need to slowly ease ourselves back into routine so it’s not “shock! vacation, shock! normal life.” Even slight disruptions in our regular patterns can be tough to handle with mental illness! Even people living without mental illness get the blues after vacation and travel.
Essentially, plan an adequate amount of time to readjust to your usual life. Perhaps take an extra day or two off before returning to work, have a self-care plan, or slowly increase your alone time towards the end of the holiday season before returning back to your own place.
If You’re spending holidays alone
If you’re alone for the holidays, make that alone time really count. As the new year begins, treat yourself to something that honors the challenges you faced this past year. Maybe it’s a massage, popcorn and a solo movie night, a fancy dinner with just you and a good book, or something else that suits your fancy. There are lots of budget friendly ways to make self-loving plans. Come up with something creative and follow through. Even the simple act of having an event dedicated to you can be a great way to lower depression, stress, and anxiety!
Feel and honor the loneliness
This one is extra important. The holidays are often an emotional time and one of those primary feelings is loneliness. Coping with this can be done, but first we need to accept that we feel lonely. It can be as simple as hugging yourself and saying you honor the loneliness you feel, to giving yourself space to cry.
When stress and anxiety are high, rest is essential. If you know that you struggle to slow down or you’ve been feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, take the holiday weeks to increase the amount of rest in your life. It can be as small as a ten minute nap or as significant as going to bed two hours earlier.
Some of us experience too much rest in our lives, since that can be a symptom of several mental illnesses like depression. In this case, you can always substitute more sleep for more “awake rest.” Meditation, if possible, is a fantastic option. Other substitutes are relaxing baths, giving yourself a foot massage, or watching an inspiring movie.
Buy yourself a gift (or treat yourself to an experience)
Similar to the first idea, don’t be afraid to treat yourself at least once this holiday season. It could be spending a day eating lunch in a park or flying to a different part of the country and going on your own mini-vacation. It could be that new item you’ve been wanting lately. Whatever your budget, energy, and ability can handle, go for it. Ask yourself “what have I always wanted?” and see if it’s legitimately something you can get for yourself this gift-giving season. Even if you can’t afford it right now, it may feel great to tuck away a few dollars so you can save up for this gift or experience.
Self-care is great, but sometimes we need to go beyond it and into the realm of self-nurturing. When we focus on this, we give ourselves a deep sense of comfort, serenity, and love. This goes beyond meeting the basic needs of caring for ourselves. Things like giving yourself a massage, taking a soothing bath, writing or meditating to your inner child, or lots of other healing endeavors are ways we can self-nurture. Think of what has always made you feel supported when you were younger, then try to mimic that action towards yourself as best as possible.
Keep working, if you want
Don’t be afraid to keep up the routine of your daily life! The holiday season doesn’t require vacation. It’s typical for people to take time off, but if you find your daily working routine grounding and helpful, you have every right to stick with it. Ultimately, when you’re spending the holiday season alone, it’s all about listening to what you want and then doing what you want. If you like working, go for it. (This is totally me when I’m not traveling!)
In general, keeping up with your daily routine can provide a sense of stability during this season. If you have a morning routine, stick to it. If you have a nighttime routine, do that too. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your life as typical as you want to. Mental illness itself creates enough surprising ups and downs!
Spend some time outside
There are tons of scientific studies that demonstrate the benefit of going outside. I don’t believe it solely can cure any mental illness. It can boost our mood or help us find some peace, though. Even though one of my own PTSD symptoms is anxiety when leaving my apartment, I’ve always felt refreshed after coming in from the outdoors. Tired from my racing heart, perhaps, but the cool breeze and natural smells seem to miraculously rejuvenate something within me.
This may or may not work for you, depending on the accessibility of the outdoors and your own particular needs, but it’s something worth exploring if possible. In the winter, many of us tend to shut ourselves indoors. Breaking this reclusive pattern can significantly help us.
Write a list or letter detailing all of your amazing accomplishments this year
This is probably my favorite idea on this list because there’s nothing more powerful than self-love. Especially when we have depression, seasonal affective disorder, or if we’re feeling lonely, we may start hearing more negative self-talk circling through our heads. Taking some time to sit down and write or type out a list of the accomplishments we had this year can really transform how we see ourselves. Everything from getting out of bed each day to having moved to a new country is valid for this list. Your accomplishments are unique to you.
Do the holidays sound more manageable now?
Resting, self-care, and tending to your needs will not only allow you to enjoy the holidays, but also keep your mental health the best it can be throughout this season.
These 16 ideas are meant as a resource for you this season and beyond,. Skim through the comments (or add some) with your tips and tricks for handling the holidays as well! What is your main challenge during the holidays? What is your plan to manage or solve this challenge?
Know a friend who will benefit from this resource? Send a link to them or share it on social media!