The holidays are quickly approaching (how are we mid-way through November already?!). There is much to consider for the upcoming festivities. What will you wear? What food will you bring? And, for some people, the more pressing question: how will I mentally get through the holiday stress? The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) defines the holiday blues as “temporary feelings of anxiety or depression during the holidays that can be associated with extra stress, unrealistic expectations, or even memories that accompany the season.” Symptoms can include fatigue, tension, loneliness, frustration, sadness, and a sense of loss.

How to Survive the Holiday Blues

Everyone likes to imagine the Hallmark version of the holidays. Think, happy commercials of happy nuclear and extended families, thrilled to be in each other’s company. The reality is that many people do struggle around the holiday season. In NAMI’s survey on the holiday blues, 64% of those surveyed reported that they are affected. 24% reported that they were “affected a lot.” Some people have contentious relationships with family members for various reasons. Spending time with family over the holidays can bring up thoughts of worry and maintaining hard-fought boundaries, as opposed to visions of sugar plums and blissful holiday cheer. Others struggle to maintain their goals and progress on those goals during the holidays. There are a few things you can do over the holidays to ensure that you maximize enjoyment, minimize conflict, and navigate challenging relationships with ease and grace. Read on!

Manage expectations.

This applies to every aspect of the holidays. Realistic expectations help set us up for success rather than failure. For example, realistic expectations about how much fun you’ll have, how many people you’ll have time to see, how much cooking you’ll be able to accomplish, how many cards you can send out. This allows you to set plans and goals based on what is actually feasible for you. As opposed to what you or others may want from you. Before committing to something, ask yourself this question. “Do I really have time for/want to do/the capacity to manage _ over the holidays?”

Don’t keep doing something distressing for the sake of “tradition”. “The most dangerous phrase in our language is ‘We’ve always done it this way’”. This idea allows people to cling to old ideas, ways of doing things, or views that may have outlived their usefulness, simply because that’s the established tradition. If there is a particular holiday tradition that causes you more harm than joy, by all means, ditch it!

Plan ahead of time to ensure you do things that you really love.

There are so many obligations during the holidays. From parties to attend, gifts to wrap treats to bake, and more. We may get caught up in fulfilling obligations rather than actually spending time doing the things that would bring us joy. I recommend sitting down before the holiday season begins to make a list of what’s most important to you. Jot down activities that you want to make sure you can take part in. Then, plan your obligations around time for these important activities. After all, holidays are supposed to be a time to recharge for the year ahead, not to further drain the battery.

Eat and drink in moderation.

Maintaining a comfortable feeling in our bodies is directly linked to maintaining a comfortable feeling in our minds. To ensure that you have enough physical and mental energy to do all the things you want to do over the holidays (see tip #3). It’s vital that you take care of your body in a way that allows its maximum functioning. Eating or drinking alcohol (or eggnog!) in excess will likely set you up for feeling sluggish and potentially hungover the next day and may throw a wrench in your plans or even your relationships. One way to moderate your alcohol consumption is to make an agreement with yourself about how many drinks you plan to have in advance. For example: “I know I need to get up early to cook tomorrow, so I will only drink two glasses of wine tonight.”

Keep your normal routines.

For some people, it may feel like the world stops when the holidays roll around. They lose their sense of normalcy and the routines they’ve established that help them feel safe, healthy, and secure. Therefore, one important tip is to maintain your usual routines, even throughout the holidays. Stick to usual (or reasonable) sleep and wake times, maintain your exercise routine if you have one, and keep doing the things in your usual routine that helps you to maintain a comfortable headspace. Sometimes, something as simple as sticking to a routine can help maintain a sense of control.

Set a budget- and stick to it.

There can be so much pressure to live up to an image you hold for yourself. Whether it’s the perfect host, expert thoughtful gift-buyer, chef extraordinaire. We may sacrifice too much financially in pursuit of that image. This may feel good and victorious in the short term. In the long-term, your budget may be thrown out of whack for the foreseeable future due to those holiday splurges. It’s important to be honest with yourself about what is realistic – and not so realistic – for you to expect of yourself. Remember that thoughtful, personalized, or home-made gifts can be just as if not more meaningful than that new fancy store-bought doodad.

Take time of self-care.

Being surrounded by family, friends, and loved one over the holidays is wonderful- up to a point. It’s equally important to make room for time just for you. Whether that’s relaxing in a bubble bath or going on a walk by yourself for some time alone. Aim for the sweet spot of striking the balance between isolating yourself from others and ensuring that you do have that special time all to yourself to recharge for the next social gathering.

Grief, loss, or the anniversary of trauma.

For those who have lost someone close to them or experienced a trauma, the holidays can be a triggering time that highlights the loss or pain. It can be helpful to prepare for these triggers with a therapist or close friend. That way you know what to expect and how to handle the strong emotions that may come up for you. Another way to mourn the loss of a loved one around the holidays is to commemorate them through a holiday activity they loved. Maybe it’s baking their favorite dessert, putting up their favorite decorations, and sharing stories and memories of the person.

Plan social gatherings strategically.

If you’re in charge of the guest list, and you’re aware that certain people in your life have a habit of getting into intense conflicts or making you play the role of mediator when they’re put together, be proactive and schedule separate times or meals to spend with those groups. When I think of planning for the holidays, I’m reminded of the old adage. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Putting forethought into planning social gatherings ensures that you have the best chance of putting yourself in the most ideal situation possible. It allows you to have some control over the social environment.

Refocus on why we celebrate the holidays in the first place.

Outside of all the planning, stress, and shopping, at its core, the holidays are intended to be a time to get together with people we love to express gratitude for the things in our lives that we treasure. It’s a time to reconnect to what we value (i.e. religion, spirituality, generous spirit), spread messages and acts of love and peace to our fellow man, and, in my opinion, to reconnect with the humanity within ourselves and each other. Keeping sight of the true spirit of the holidays may help to center you when things are feeling overwhelming.

If you anticipate that the holidays may be a challenging time for you and you could use a little extra support, or if you need help adhering to any of the tips just laid out, please give us a call to make an appointment with one of our trained clinicians today! Therapy can an excellent addition to your self-care routine over the holiday season.

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Dr. Samantha Turetsky

Dr. Turetsky is a postdoctoral fellow. She is a CBT specialist, anxiety expert, and family therapist. Her specialties include academic success, relationship counseling, and teaching coping skills.

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