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From Thanksgiving to New Year’s: Protecting Your Mental Health During the Holidays

22 Nov 2021 — 4 min read

By Doreen Marshall, Ph.D., AFSP Vice President of Mission Engagement

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Concerned about the impact of the holiday season on your mental health? You are not alone.

In a recent survey, nearly 88% of adults referred to the holiday season (or the period beginning in November and lasting until the New Year) as the most stressful time of the year. And while some stress is inevitable, too much stress, especially if we are already having mental health challenges, can challenge our ability to cope.

The good news? There are things you can do that can help during this stressful time.

Get outside during daylight hours.

Having fewer hours of daylight during the season can have a negative impact on your mood. Especially during the months of November and December, and especially if you struggle with depression, try to find 30 minutes to get outside during daytime hours. Walk somewhere instead of driving, invite a friend or neighbor to take a daily walk, sit outside every day, or watch a sunrise.

Take a risk and connect if you are feeling lonely.

Chances are pretty good that you are not the only one feeling lonely this season. Reach out to someone who may also be feeling that way. Sharing how you are feeling may empower them to do the same. Talk about ways you can stay connected and support each other this season. A regular call, text or note to check in with each other may help both of you.

Do at least one thing to improve your sleep this season.

Keeping consistent sleep hours (and getting enough sleep) can help you to better navigate the stressful months of the season. Pick one thing you will do to improve your sleep and do it as consistently as you can.  Go to bed 30 minutes earlier, leave your phone in another room, make the room completely dark (or use an eye mask or dark curtains), or keep the thermostat lower, since we often sleep better in cooler temperatures.

Take breaks.

Schedule “downtime” following stressful holiday events. Plan time off work  if you can, or schedule some time off following the holiday season. Be mindful about your consumption of news or social media. (In fact, this season is a great time for a social media “break” if you need one.) Take a deep breathing break: there are lots of guided breathing activities on YouTube that can help.

Remove something from your holiday “to do” list.

If you find yourself overextended this holiday season, let go of something that adds to your stress level. Not in the mood to send holiday cards? Don’t. Want to avoid awkward gift exchanges? Tell others early that you won’t be exchanging gifts this year during the holiday season. If they insist, request to exchange notes with a personal wish for each other, instead.

Find a balance between being with others and being alone.

You may have decided you don’t have the energy or desire to attend a large gathering this year. That’s okay, but it’s also important not to isolate yourself completely. Rather than being totally alone, invite a couple of people to join you in a low-pressure activity, like a nature hike. If you are alone, consider planning something that you can do alone while also being around others, like going to a movie, hearing live music, visiting a local tourist site, or volunteering.

Find the choices within the obligations (assuming you can’t avoid them entirely).

If you find yourself having to attend events you would prefer to avoid, at least do it in a way that gives you as much choice as possible. Avoid contentious conversations by taking a walk after dinner, excusing yourself to use the restroom, or leaving early (especially if you anticipate that others are consuming too much alcohol and may not exercise restraint.) Have a buddy you can call during tense moments to debrief.

 You can also rehearse a few phrases to help you set appropriate boundaries with others:

  • “I’d rather not discuss that today/here.”
  • “I don’t know how to respond to that.”
  • “That is not okay with me.”
  • “I’m sorry, I can’t.”
  • “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.”
  • “I’m more comfortable this way.”
  • “No, thank you.”

Remember: you don’t have to attend every argument you are invited to.

Prioritize activities that support your mental health.

This is the season to focus on doing the things that you already know help your mental health. Keep therapy appointments; reach out to the therapist you stopped seeing (we are usually delighted to hear from you!); or find a new therapist if you need one. Limit or avoid alcohol consumption, which can take a toll on our mental health. Take medication on time, and as prescribed, and plan for needed refills. Come January, you will be glad you made your mental health a priority this season.

Not sure where to start? A mental health professional can help you form a self-care plan that best supports your mental health. You can find resources here.  

If you or someone you know is feeling hopeless this holiday season and having thoughts of suicide, don’t wait to contact a helpline such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1 (800) 273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line, text TALK to 741741.  No one has to struggle alone, and help is always available.

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