We’re expected to be full of joy and cheer during the holidays; but while some people look forward to attending parties, buying presents, and visiting loved ones, others feel burdened by the complicated feelings these activities can bring up—and the effects can be severe. In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that approximately 24% of people with a diagnosed mental illness find that the holidays make their condition “a lot” worse, while about 40% said it makes their condition “somewhat” worse.
If you’re struggling to deal with complicated relationships this time of the year, you’re not alone. Use these tips to navigate your family dynamics and set healthy boundaries during the holiday season.
1. Set Realistic Expectations for Holiday Gatherings
The holidays can shine a spotlight on tricky relationships, especially with family members. The wholesome, happy holiday scenes in pop culture aren’t always reflected in real life. It’s important to set realistic expectations when attending events or seeing people with whom you have a complicated history. Ways to navigate this include:
- Prepare ahead of time by anticipating and accepting how things are today. High hopes of changed times may only set you up for disappointment.
- Adopt an attitude of tolerance by identifying traits you admire within people you tend to not get along with.
- Pick and choose your conversations with some talking points you can plan ahead of time. If you’re not able to contribute to the conversation, ask questions and use active listening as a way to engage. Remember, it’s always a good idea to stay away from “hot topics” such as politics by removing yourself from the conversation.
- Learn the subtle art of redirection by preparing some conversation segues. Family members have a habit of bringing up embarrassing stories or topics you’d rather not talk about. Remember, you don’t have to be their source of entertainment. Instead, acknowledge the topic and move on with a subtle interruption that puts the focus back on the speaker.
Instead of hoping that this year will be the year that you overcome all of your past troubles, accept that it will most likely be just like any other holiday gathering. Consider it a success if you’re able to act cordially and avoid arguments. If you truly want to resolve your relationship issues with someone, it’s probably best to do it at another time since the holidays tend to be emotionally charged.
2. Limit Time Around Those Who Cause You Stress
You aren’t obligated to spend time with people who take a toll on your mental health. If you need to say no to certain holiday events, that’s okay. You can also cut back on travel or limit the time you spend at parties and other festive functions.
For example, your parents may want you to visit for a full week over the holidays. But to you, the idea sounds exhausting and stressful. There are a few ways you can handle this request to prioritize your own mental health, including:
- Shorten the length of your trip to a few days.
- Visit for a week, but stay in a hotel so you can have your own space.
- Offer to visit at another time of the year instead so you can avoid the high expectations of a holiday get-together.
Remember that holiday events don’t have to be organized solely on your family’s terms. You can still foster your relationships while putting up healthy boundaries.
3. Plan Some Extra Self-Care
Between parties, shopping, and other seasonal activities, it’s easy for your calendar to fill up quickly during this time of year. It’s important to find a happy medium between social isolation and overextending yourself. To avoid burnout, be sure to set aside some time to care for yourself throughout the holiday season. Self-care ideas for the holidays include:
- Organize your schedule: The best way to remember all of your commitments is to track them with a calendar, planner, or Bullet Journal. Putting your plans and thoughts to paper is a great way to “declutter” your mind and help you feel more organized, focused, and prepared.
- Spend some time by yourself: Preceding or following a social engagement, it’s important to “charge” or “recharge” your energy (which is especially important for introverts). Social stimulation can be overwhelming and exhausting. Make sure to work this around your plans.
- Prioritize engagements: With only four weekends this December, it’s likely you’ll have conflicting commitments. Go into next month with a game plan where you prioritize your mental health needs first, and the needs of others second.
- When and when not to RSVP: Important social affairs will require you to RSVP ahead of time for planning purposes. With other social engagements, however, it’s ok to not give a dedicated answer right away. A simple, “let me check my schedule and get back to you,” would suffice for the moment until you’re able to give a more firm answer.
- Learn to say “no” to social requests: It’s natural to feel as if you’re letting someone down by declining their invitation. Just know that, by declining, you’re prioritizing your needs which is essential for better mental health. It’s also good to remember that your relationship should not be affected by declining a social engagement. Still feel guilty? Send a holiday card by mail or make plans at a better time that works for everyone.
If you’re traveling or attending events, it’s okay to take a moment for yourself when you need to. For example, if you feel overwhelmed at a holiday party, you can go for a walk around the block, make a run to the grocery store for food or party supplies, or simply retreat to an empty room for a few minutes.
4. Be Aware of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
There’s a chance that your difficult experience around the holidays could be due to seasonal affective disorder, more commonly known as SAD. For those who struggle with depression, seasonal changes, emotional family reunions, and obligations of the holiday season can worsen their depression.
It’s important to recognize the difference between “winter blues” and SAD. The most common symptoms of the winter blues are general sadness and a lack of energy. Other symptoms of the winter blues include the following:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feeling less social than usual
- Difficulty taking initiative
The most common symptoms of SAD are sleeping too much and overeating. Other symptoms include the following:
- Feeling depressed nearly every day
- Withdrawal from activities you typically enjoy
- Social isolation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Constant low energy level
- Feeling hopeless about the future
- Having suicidal thoughts
If your feelings are more than just the “winter blues,” pay attention to your symptoms and seek treatment immediately.
5. Reach Out
If these tips aren’t enough to overcome your holiday depression, that’s okay. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need some help getting through this season. Here are a few options to consider:
- See a therapist: Talking about relationship issues with a professional before, during, and/or after the holidays can help you to process what you’re going through and develop strategies for handling different scenarios.
- Try a new treatment: Ketamine infusion therapy is one of the leading alternative treatments for depression and anxiety. It also offers faster relief than many other treatment options, which can help as you cope with holiday obligations.
- Don’t isolate yourself: Avoid the temptation to withdraw from others during the holiday season. When some relationships cause stress, it’s important to reach out to friends or family members for support, especially those you know you can count on for unconditional love.
The holidays can be a tough time when it comes to dealing with difficult relationships. If you're experiencing symptoms of depression, treatment is available to you. Talk to your doctor as soon as possible, and contact our patient care team at 424-343-8889.