Mental Health and the Holidays

The Most Difficult Time of Year: The Holidays and Mental Health

The holidays can be a time full of joy, wonder, and excitement for many people, but for some, it can be the most difficult time of the year. The demands of shopping for gifts, decorating, preparing meals, and anticipating family get-togethers can lead some people to feel overwhelmed with high expectations. 

Grief can pop up when we least expect it and can add to the stressors we feel around the holidays. It can evolve into new feelings of sadness and loss because something around the holiday reminds us of those we lost. Remember that it is okay to let yourself feel those emotions as they pour in. While this can be hard to experience, it’s important not to suppress them. Don’t avoid feeling your emotions or numbing the pain. Processing these emotions and feelings can help us realize we may have more control over them than we think we do and allows us to address them.

Holiday Stress and Mental Health

A survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness noted that 64% of individuals living with a mental illness felt that their conditions worsened around the holidays. Increased stress can lead to depression, anxiety, substance use, loneliness, and physical illness. 

It is important to note that “holiday blues” are not the same as suffering from mental illness or substance use disorders; however, it can exacerbate someone’s symptoms. With the busyness and stress of the season, it can be challenging to distinguish between feeling down versus more significant mental health effects. Knowing the difference between the two is essential to maintaining one’s mental health during the holiday season, and understanding what can trigger someone allows them to take steps to avoid situations that will cause additional mental stress.

Managing Your Mental Health at the Holidays

Selfcare. The holidays are known as the season of giving, but remembering self-care is crucial to one’s own mental health. Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Be aware of your stress triggers and have a plan to cope with them. Our physical health is closely connected to our mental health, and while one should absolutely enjoy the festivities (eat the dessert), try not to neglect your physical health. Exercising releases stress-relieving hormones in your body, and eating well can stabilize someone’s mood. Exercising and maintaining healthy eating is one way to care for yourself.

Boundaries may be extremely important things to have around the holidays. Prioritize your time and remember that it is perfectly okay to say “no” to things. Stretching yourself too thin will only increase stress.

Alcohol consumption. The relationship between alcohol and mental health is quite complex. Some may drink alcohol to relax or help cope with holiday stressors. Holiday cocktails, beer, mulled wine, or adult eggnog can make a party feel more festive, but it may be worth considering avoiding or limiting alcohol consumption. Alcohol is a depressant. It slows down the central nervous system that controls thoughts and how your brain speaks to your body.  It can negatively affect thoughts, feelings, and actions, which can make feelings of sadness or stress worsen. Because alcohol changes the brain, it depletes the chemicals in our brains that naturally help reduce anxiety. 

Get enough sleep. The collision of sleep deprivation and stress can have a profound impact. Sleep affects mood. You may be more irritable, short-tempered, and vulnerable to holiday stress. Not only does sleep affect mood, but mood and mental states can also affect sleep. Anxiety increases agitation and arousal, which makes it difficult to sleep. If you are not getting enough sleep, setting aside time for relaxation can help.

Stay connected with loved ones. Catching up with close friends and those who you truly enjoy being around can better one’s mood and help you to feel recharged and refreshed.

Above all else, if someone feels their mental health getting worse, it is important to find support among family, friends, therapists, or support groups. For times of crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 988 to talk to a trained counselor free of charge. 

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