manage your mental health during the holidays

The whirlwind of the holiday season is upon us. The festivities abound with parties, travel plans, family gatherings, and anticipated enjoyment of the memories they are about to make. We cook, clean, shop, decorate to make the holidays “perfect”. But as joyous as the season is, the festivities can disrupt routines, strain finances and test relationships.

Amidst this time of seemingly limitless cheer, you may find yourself navigating a maze of emotions, from the glow of the season to the dark undertones of the holiday blues. Yes, the holiday blues are real. Defined as a transient emotional state characterized by feelings of sadness, stress, or loneliness, the holiday blues often occur during this holiday season. They stem from increased pressure, financial constraints, the weight of grieving lost loved ones and feelings of isolation. Symptoms include mood swings, decreased interest in activities, lethargy, and difficulty focusing.

How can you avoid or reduce the holiday blues? Preparation turns out to be key to navigating this season and protecting your mental health. Think about what situations or behaviors make you feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed, and set boundaries that define what is and isn’t acceptable in your relationships with others. Recognizing that the holidays don’t magically erase negative emotions paves the way for adopting healthy coping mechanisms.

Stress management will also help ease the effects of the holiday blues. Managing stress starts with setting realistic expectations. For example, if the whole family can’t get together on Christmas, plan your get-together for another day. By adapting family traditions to the realities of work schedules, travel requirements, and other seasonal obligations, you’ll prioritize the shared moment instead of focusing on a specific date on the calendar. De-stressing to enjoy these moments becomes achievable.

Other tips for managing holiday stress include:

  • Budgeting gifts, trips and traditions with an emphasis on mood over cost.
  • Coordinating multiple events with loved ones and embracing time flexibility.
  • Recognizing the triggers that compound the holiday blues. Try to avoid isolation. Seeking comfort from friends, family, or community grief support groups offers comfort.

The loss of a loved one is often felt most strongly during the holidays. Dealing with grief requires a compassionate approach. Start by acknowledging your feelings and allowing yourself to experience and express them. Seek support from friends and family members who understand how you feel. Find ways to honor your lost loved one by lighting a candle, creating a memory board, or sharing happy memories of your time together. Adapt current traditions or create new ones to celebrate your loved one’s life with others who share your loss. Participating in charitable activities, for example, will help you reach gratitude and grace while creating new memories to sustain you.

Sometimes our efforts to cope with grief and holiday sleep are not enough. If these feelings become overwhelming, seek professional guidance. Your primary care provider can refer you to a mental health professional. In a crisis, call 988 any time of the day or night to speak to a trained licensed counselor.

Prioritizing self-care is always important, and especially during the holidays. Plan ahead to decide which activities you want to participate in and develop an “exit strategy” for times when you might start to feel overwhelmed. Get plenty of rest, eat healthy foods, limit alcohol, and participate in activities that bring you joy and comfort.

Navigating this season involves finding balance amid the holiday whirlwind so you can embrace both the sparkle and the shadows.

Scott McIntosh, MD, FAPA is Chief of Psychiatry at Baptist Health Care.

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