For many people, the holiday season is a joyful time of year that they look forward to for months in advance. For people who struggle to maintain their mental health, the holidays can be a stressful time that threatens their ability to maintain wellness.
Holiday Triggers & Your Mental Health
According to the California Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 64 percent of people with mental health diagnosis report that the holidays make their mental health symptoms worse. Depending on the nature of the person’s mental health struggle, there are a variety of issues that can rise to the surface during this very hectic time:
- Anxiety – Large family gatherings may be overwhelming for people who have a hard time dealing with big groups.
- PTSD – Holiday noise and chaos can be intense, especially if a person’s trauma occurred around the holidays or if someone who will be present for the festivities perpetrated the trauma.
- Substance Use Disorder – The person might have memories of heavy drinking around this time of year and may find it tempting to have “just one” of their favorite alcoholic beverage–or they may be afraid of accidentally picking up someone else’s alcoholic drink by mistake.
There may also be guilt around how their substance use adversely impacted people who will be at the gathering.
- Depression – The person may not feel up to being jolly and cheerful and may worry about bringing down everyone else.
- Bipolar – The stress of the holidays can trigger mania and depression.
- Schizophrenia – More hallucinations may occur around the holidays.
Planning Ahead for Your Mental Health
Mental Health First Aid has five suggestions to help people with mental health struggles to have a better holiday season:
- Maintain realistic expectations – Not only are we still in a pandemic, which could alter plans for some people, but if managing your mental health is a new process for you, it might be necessary to take baby steps right now. Allow yourself and others plenty of grace.
- Set some boundaries – If you’re feeling overwhelmed or sensing that you could become triggered, pull back. It may be helpful to enlist a loved one who understands the work you have been doing on your mental health to be a buffer between yourself and any family members who don’t understand.
- Use remote connections – If in-person gatherings aren’t possible or simply seem too overwhelming right now, consider using text, a phone call, social media, or a video chat platform to engage with friends and family.
- Continue working your recovery plan – While it can be easy to say that you’re too busy right now for journaling, therapy, support groups, exercise, proper sleep, etc., it is not recommended to skip these important self-care actions.
- Ask for help – Monitor your mental health and reach out to those who support you if you’re not doing well.
Advice for Loved Ones
If you are a friend or family member of someone whose mental health is challenged by all of the hustle and bustle that takes place in the early winter, there are things you can do to support your loved one:
- Provide a sanctuary – If someone is joining you for the holidays who struggles to deal with lots of noise or activity, set aside a quiet space where they can step away from the merry-making and take a nap, journal, or use whatever coping skills will help them to enjoy the day.
- Exclude the perpetrator – It is an unfortunate truth that sometimes victims of sexual or physical abuse sit home alone on holidays because their family chooses to invite the person who victimized them. If you want a person who has survived interpersonal trauma to come to your holiday gathering, you need to ensure that they feel safe, both physically and emotionally.
- Ditch the substances – If you’re inviting a loved one to your home who is in recovery from alcohol or other substances, don’t put them in the position of being the odd one out with everyone else drinking. Suspend the alcohol for a few hours; it will mean the world to them.
- Provide some reassurance – Regardless of what diagnosis your loved one might be living with, it can be helpful to reassure them that you want them at your event and are willing to do what you can to help them feel comfortable.
- Consider a smaller gathering – While it may have been your tradition before to have a huge get together, in light of the pandemic and the stress this could cause for your loved one, it might be worth considering having a couple of smaller, quieter gatherings.