Navigating the Holiday Season with Compassion: Supporting Mental Health for You and Your Loved Ones

If you or your loved one is struggling with a mental health disorder, the holiday season can leave you feeling a bit like you’re from the Island of Misfit Toys.

Depictions of the holidays as a time of joy and celebration can leave people who are already depressed or anxious – or worried about the health of their loved one – feeling even more anxious or depressed.

For many people, stress levels increase this time of year, which can contribute to symptoms of depression and anxiety. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, 44 percent of women and 31 percent of men said they feel more stressed during the holiday season.

Another way that the holidays can compound negative emotions is the disconnect between the expectations of what the holiday should be or used to be, and the current reality.

Family members whose loved one is in treatment may miss having their spouse, parent, child, or sibling there. While they may feel relief knowing their loved one is getting the help they need, that doesn’t erase the feelings of loneliness or loss.

Those who are struggling with a mental health disorder may feel sad that their emotions don’t match up with the festive celebrations around them. This can leave people feeling lonely and anxious. A survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 24 percent of people diagnosed with a mental illness said the holidays made their condition “a lot” worse, while 40 percent said this time of year makes their condition “somewhat worse”.

In the NAMI survey, 57 percent said they felt bad because of unrealistic expectations; 55 percent felt sad remembering happier times that contrasted with the present; and 50 percent were unable to be with loved ones.

With the holiday season just around the corner, here are some tips to help you cope with negative emotions and get through it.

Acknowledge your feelings.

You may feel somewhat hopeful or cheerful on one day, and sad, lonely or anxious on another. Or, you might think you’re doing fine, and then something will trigger stress and anxiety. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling, without judgment, knowing that those feelings will pass.

Practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness involves acknowledging the validity of negative thoughts and emotions such as sadness and anger, but then consciously setting those worries aside and bringing the mind back to the present. Studies have shown practicing mindfulness can help people cope with anxiety and depression by temporarily letting go of negative emotions, and letting more positive thoughts back in.

Maintain healthy habits.

The holidays can disrupt our day-to-day routines around sleep, exercise, eating and alcohol consumption. Even for those who don’t have a substance use disorder, this can lead to overindulging, which can exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety. That can be a negative feedback cycle: When people are experiencing more stress and depression, sticking to healthy lifestyle choices becomes that much more difficult. Be aware that the holiday season may make self-care more difficult. Try to stick to the routines that are important to maintaining your well-being. Connecting with our natural world can also relieve stress and anxiety. If you’re able to get out for a hike on a nature trail, get out there and do it. A study by German researchers found that replacing just 30 minutes of social media usage daily with physical activity helped people to feel less stressed and have fewer depressive symptoms.

Make room for new traditions.

The best traditions help us feel connected to the people we care about. But as time passes, families change, and their traditions and rituals may need to change as well. During the pandemic, many families found ways to connect with their loved ones through virtual family reunions, or just a long phone call.

Manage others’ expectations.

Your family may not understand how exhausted you feel, or they may be experiencing their own distress. Try to be clear about your limits. If hosting an event or attending parties is too much, it’s OK to say no. Family members can also stir up intense emotions. No one can push our buttons like those closest to us. If you have family members who are triggering, feel free to limit the time you spend with them. Complicated family dynamics may not be good for you right now.

Make time to connect.

Connecting with others protects us from isolation and loneliness. Reach out, even when it feels like an effort, and try to spend time with people who are supportive and help you feel appreciated and cherished. Or reach out by phone to a friend, family, or a support group.