It’s not uncommon for patients to seem almost embarrassed or ashamed, when disclosing at an appointment in October or November, that they may need additional support, throughout the holiday season. They may bring this up by mentioning that this holiday season will be their first without a recently deceased spouse or family member, or by reminding me of their difficult childhood, where their family was impoverished, or they were a witness to violence between their parents, or a chaotic home environment. Many are surprised to find, that they are not alone. The holiday season can bring both tremendous joy to some, but it can also be one of the most difficult times of the year, for others.
As a mental health professional, I find that one of my most important roles throughout the holiday season, is to be unassuming regarding someone’s relationship to the holidays. I’ve learned that asking questions such as “what is this time of the year like for you,” “how were your holidays growing up,” or “do you have plans for the holidays or new year” allow patients to open up about any struggles that they may have during this time of the year. I would actually encourage non mental health providers to take a similar approach. Starting off a conversation with “what a great time of the year, what’s your favorite part about it?” may cause someone to close off, or actually make them feel more alienated, for example.
Tips for individuals who struggle with the holidays, have recently suffered the loss of a love one, or who are triggered by memories of difficult holidays past:
- Avoid Isolating: Isolating may seem like the easiest or most comfortable thing to do, but pushing yourself to be around family and friends, will make the holidays easier over time, and help you to form new positive memories about the holidays moving forward.
- Make New Traditions on Your Terms: If there are certain activities that you do enjoy, push yourself to engage in those activities, or start new traditions around those activities. For example, if gift-giving or church-going is particularly triggering, a cookie baking, volunteer work, music playing, or holiday themed park tradition may be in order.
- Keep a Healthy Routine: The holidays often coincide with some time off work, or other breaks from someone’s typical routine. If you normally exercise a couple times a week, wake up and go to bed at reasonable hours, spend a little time outside each day, practice yoga in the mornings, or enjoy reading each evening before bed, try to keep with these healthy routines, throughout the holiday season. You enjoy these activities, and you deserve to continue to do them, even if everyone else seems solely focused on holiday festivities. Maintaining healthy habits throughout any difficult time, generally helps individuals to feel more like themselves, and feel better faster, if depressed, anxious or lonely.
- Limit Alcohol Use: Mental Health Professionals often recommend that individuals should avoid any alcohol if Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired (HALT). If someone is having difficulty with their emotions, they will be particularly vulnerable to excessive alcohol use, and it’s depressive effects. If someone has a history of a substance use disorder, abstaining from alcohol and illicit substances is particularly important. Alcohol is a depressant, and alcohol in excess can actually make someone more vulnerable to depression, or increase risk of heightened anxiety or panic as it wears off. With all of this being said, for many, one or two drinks with family or friends can be enjoyed safely, and using discretion and being honest with yourself (and your relationship with alcohol), is prudent regarding this tip.
- Have Compassion for Yourself: You are not alone. The holidays are not ubiquitously joyous for all. It is ok to not feel ok, and you will feel better. If you do need some time for yourself, or to avoid certain events, grant yourself that. And if you feel that you need additional support, please do not hesitate to reach out to a mental health provider. We’re here to help.