The “most wonderful time of the year” can quickly turn into the most stressful time of the year for many. When compounded by a mental illness, common holiday pressures can create a perfect storm of exacerbated stressors, symptoms and setbacks if not proactively addressed.
The reality is that potential hazards exist at every turn during the holidays. These situations can trigger heightened difficulties for people suffering from depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mental illnesses. The holidays can also introduce additional stressors such as complicated relationship dynamics at family gatherings, grief over losing a loved one or simply trying to live up to the unattainable expectations of the “perfect holiday.”
While it’s important that all people consider the impact of the holidays on emotional well-being, it is crucial that those with mental illness consider tactics for avoiding pitfalls. Of all the things on your holiday preparation to-do list, the most critical one is maintaining your mental health and practicing self-care.
Major Depressive Disorder With A Seasonal Pattern
Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern (formerly known as seasonal affective disorder, or SAD), is a form of depression that often accompanies changes in seasons. This disorder results from chemical changes in the brain and body and is best controlled with the help of a mental health professional who understands the nuances of treating this condition. Whether through online, remote care options such as telepsychiatry or in-person treatments, seeking professional support is truly beneficial in proactively managing this condition leading up to, during and following the holiday season.
Symptoms of SAD can become more pronounced as the holidays approach. These tips can help you manage your symptoms during the holidays.
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water and herbal teas, and don’t forget to hydrate your skin with lotions and lip balms. Hydration nourishes the brain and its physical effects can improve your overall mood.
- Find time to exercise. The holiday season is a great time to ice skate, ski or hike. If you don’t have access to these outdoor activities, any form of exercise will release endorphins, which can lessen the symptoms of depression.
- Spend time with loved ones. This offers an opportunity for social interaction, which can help lessen the feelings of loneliness that may come around this time of year.
- Pamper yourself. Taking a bath, having a warm drink or getting a massage can create a sense of calm and happiness, especially during the stress of the holidays.
- Indulge without overconsuming. Treating yourself can make you happy, but over-indulging in unhealthy food around the holidays can negatively impact symptoms.
Grief Over The Holidays
One of the greatest holiday stresses is the absence of a loved one who passed away. The empty seat where they would have sat can fill families with a sense of grief, loss and emptiness, as well as worsen symptoms for individuals with mental illness. The following recommendations can help you and your family cope:
- It’s not all sad. Know that some parts of the holiday will be wonderful, and some parts will be sad. The anticipation of sadness may be stressful, but the holidays provide an opportunity for healing. You can still take joy in the relatives that are present and remember fond memories of holidays past.
- It is okay to feel the way you feel. It is healthy to acknowledge your feelings and work through them, rather than suppressing them.
- Take care of yourself. Find healthy ways to cope, such as exercising. Organizing family walks is a great way to get fresh air and enjoy the company of others. Don’t search for solace in unhealthy foods or alcohol. If alcohol is present, drink responsibly.
- Don’t feel pressured to uphold family traditions. While they might be a comforting way to remember a loved one, sometimes family traditions are too painful to bear. Your family will find new ways to celebrate, and your traditions will adjust with time.
Keep in mind that the loved ones you lost would want you to remember them fondly, to enjoy the holiday season, and to find comfort in having the family come together.
Managing Holiday Expectations
The holiday season only comes once a year, and while it’s understandable to aspire for perfection, it’s important to set realistic, attainable goals. The following are a few key tips for avoiding the stress of perfection.
- Make a budget. While the average American household spent nearly $1,000 on holiday gifts in 2017, it’s important not to go overboard. Do your best to stick to a budget while still leaving a small amount extra for wiggle room; the holidays tend to bring out the generosity in us.
- Come up with a plan. Spread out your errands, so you don’t become overwhelmed with too many tasks at once, and don’t forget to schedule some relaxation time!
- Find the best time to shop. Malls are less crowded on weekdays and weeknights. If you can manage, try to go during the day and park farther away from the stores. Your time in the sunlight walking to or from your car can boost your serotonin levels. Practicing mindful activities while you wait in line can also help you stay calm among the holiday shopping chaos.
- Be kind to yourself. All you can do is your best and your best is good enough. It’s impossible to please everyone, but we are often our own harshest critics.
Keep in mind that the holidays are about spending time with loved ones, not gifts. Your friends and family will be happy to create memories with you, so don’t worry about finding an expensive gift or if they will like it; they will appreciate your efforts and affection regardless of what you give them.
The holidays bring joy and happiness as well as frustration and stress. This holiday season, you may have many things to take care of, but the most important one is yourself.
Jessica Maharaj, a Certified Nursing Assistant, is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at George Washington University while also working at InSight Telepsychiatry. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology with a second major in Biology and a concentration in Human Services from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Jessica was the President of UMBC’s campus chapter of NAMI during her undergraduate career.