Five ways to protect your mental health from holiday stress
Dec 5, 2022
While the holiday season may be a time of joy for many, for others it can actually make depression and anxiety worse. In fact, 52% of Canadians report feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation during the holiday season. With the holidays quickly approaching, it’s important to find ways to cope with the added stress that can come with this time of year.
Here are five ways that the holidays can be overwhelming and what you can do to protect your mental health.
1. (Too) great expectations
The image of the “perfect holiday” permeates the mainstream culture. We know exactly how it’s supposed to go. We feel obligations. We compare ourselves to the ideal. Are we happy enough? Are we doing it right?
Or perhaps the holidays aren’t even part of your cultural tradition, but you feel pressure to celebrate them for fear of feeling excluded. Or, maybe they’re part of a tradition you reject. If so,
Ignore judgments of “bah humbug” – you are not obliged to celebrate the holidays.
Recognize if you feel oppressed by your own traditions. If you do, it’s time to take the space and reinvent. Maybe that means saying no (“I can’t come this year”,) or setting other boundaries (“I’m coming for dinner but I can’t stay the night”).
Don’t be ruled by what’s gone on in the past. They’re your holidays and you can take them back.
Ask yourself what you love about the holidays. What do you dislike, or even hate? Now choose to do what you love! Don’t let your—or anybody else’s—traditions dictate how and if you celebrate.
2. Merriment to the max
Over-eating. Over-drinking. Over-spending. General over-indulgence. It seems the holidays go hand and hand with them. This compulsory consumerism and mandatory merriment can have a damaging effect on your mental health, especially if you struggle with personal finances or with substances. Consumption comes at a price that not everyone can afford. If so,
Know that you don’t have to buy things to show others that you care.
There are gift exchange ideas that cut down on consumerism, without skimping on generosity or giving.
Offer the gift of mental health by making a donation to cmha.ca or another mental health organization in honour of someone. Or give to another cause you care about.
Stay on top of what you’re spending by budgeting. A budget template can help you do that.
Remind yourself of pitfalls or triggers when it comes to over-indulging. It might feel good in the moment, or help you deal with holiday stress, but may not have positive effects on your mental health the next morning or the next month when bills are due.
Don’t lose sight of your needs for exercise and sleep.
3. Trying to be the “perfect host”
You may be hosting a gathering this year for the first (or fiftieth) time. Maybe you feel like it’s your job to please everyone and make sure others are having enough fun and enjoying their holidays. That’s a lot of pressure. If so,
Delegate to others: if you feel it’s your job alone to make things perfect, you can ask others to help. It’s their holiday too!
Take a break from hosting or retire altogether. Ask someone else to host this year.
Head conflict off at the pass. If you know there are certain topics that will set people off, be kind and clear about boundaries and expectations. Put your ground rules in your invitation email or specify a time to talk things through in advance. Remember that if it’s your home or your event, you get to set the rules.
4. Too much togetherness
Sometimes our holiday traditions are intensely social. Parties, get-togethers and family dinners can create relationship dynamics that are rife with discomfort, and even conflict. Tensions can run high. Because our holiday traditions can date back to childhood, we may be called on to play roles we aren’t comfortable playing any longer. If so,
Remember that only you can choose what makes you happy.
If you accept the invitation but find that you’re feeling overwhelmed while you’re there, plan to take time out by finding a quiet place to take a break, calling a friend or taking a walk.
If you don’t want to stay, you’re allowed to leave. Arrange your own transportation so you can come and go as you please.
If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to. Give yourself permission to do what’s best for you. Don’t feel guilty for cancelling.
5. Feeling left out in the cold
More than one in 10 Canadians often or always feel lonely. Half of those who experience loneliness have poorer mental health overall. Your connection to others and your community are key ways to protect mental health, so loneliness is something to pay attention to. The holidays can be especially hard if you feel lonely.
There are many reasons you might be alone during the holidays. Sometimes it’s your choice, and sometimes it isn’t, for example, if you’ve lost someone, moved away or grown apart. If you are already feeling isolated socially or have a social or other anxiety disorder, being alone during the holidays can make things worse. If so,
Do something special for yourself: cook yourself your favourite foods, go to a movie, or do a holiday project.
Volunteer. By helping others, you also boost your own mental health and have a chance to connect with other people. Help out at a foodbank, serve holiday dinner at a community meal or offer to get groceries or spend some time with someone who’s alone and doesn’t want to be.
Reach out to others who are also looking for connection: there are whole groups of people—in person and online—who are also looking for community.
Go “old school” and write letters and holiday cards with invitations to connect by phone.
If you are struggling, know that there is help and hope.
If, despite your best efforts, you feel overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety or sadness, or if your negative feelings are persistent or get in the way of your daily life, you should reach out for mental health support:
If you just want to talk to someone, there are “warm lines” for you to do just that.
If you are thinking of suicide, please call Talk Suicide at 1-833-456-4566 toll free in Canada (1-866-277-3553 in Quebec) or dial 911.
Holidays aren’t magical for everyone. That’s because the “most wonderful time of the year” can be fraught with challenges and situations that affect our mental health. Be prepared. If you’re dreading the holidays, don’t let them just happen to you. Get out in front of them. And take good care.