Mental health professionals often refer to the holiday season as the most difficult time of year for their clients. There is more in the air than the scent of fresh baked cookies. On the not-so-sweet side there are awkward family interactions, embarrassing past woes revealed, resurfacing childhood trauma, addiction relapse rampant — the list goes on.
People seem to get sicker this time of year, both mentally and physically. If you find the holidays tough and notice negative changes in your mental health, these tips will shed some light on strategies you can use to stay balanced.
#1: Know Your Symptoms, Look Out for Red Flags
Before a negative mental health event such as a manic state, panic attack, or major depressive episode, there are subtle signs leading up to the occurrence. Preventative measures are key. You might notice you begin to slip out of your usual routine before the holiday. You might make more impulsive decisions or experience fatigue.
It is important for you to identify these behaviors so you may intervene before it’s too late as well as recognize whether this holiday is going to be a struggle. If holidays have been hard in the past, schedule a session with a mental health professional beforehand to identify and discuss your red flags.
#2: The Past Often Predicts the Future
This is especially true for family interactions. Negative interactions with family are among the biggest complaints therapists hear from clients around the holidays. If aunt Ann and cousin Betsy get into a screaming match every year, and every year it causes an increase in anxiety for you, it’s likely this could happen again. If a family member talks down to you each time your family is celebrating, which leads to a cascade of depressed feelings, you can bet you will hear it (and feel it) again this year.
In this case, knowledge is power. Try altering your usual plans if it is going to improve your well-being. Spend the holiday with your significant other’s family or a close friend. If that isn’t an option, have a fast exit strategy ready. Talk it over with your immediate supports prior to the gathering so everyone is on the same page.
If things start to heat up, have your exit signal ready. Avoid hosting gatherings if you know they typically turn out badly and there will be no escape. If you continue to encounter trouble, move on to strategy #3.
#3 Be Your Authentic Self, Utilize Communication Skills
When you’ve realized your symptoms have become unmanageable and there is seemingly no escape, it’s time for the ultimate strategy: authenticity and healthy communication skills.
Utilizing these skills will leave you with your pride intact and a strong sense of self, both of which are critical to a healthy mental state. Being your authentic self means following your gut and refusing to mask your feelings. If a situation is making you uncomfortable, avoid burying your head in the sand. It might sound scary, but it can be very freeing to unapologetically practice authenticity.
There is a right and wrong way to do this, and that’s where healthy communication comes into play. Try to use “I” statements that focus on you instead of whomever you’re addressing. This can help to lower defensiveness. Instead of saying, “You are such a jerk! I can’t stand you. You really need to change,” try, “When I was in your situation, it was hard for me to change. I was able to start making changes by…”
Another way to be a champion of communication is to eliminate cognitive distortions whenever possible. These are common maladaptive ways of thinking that all of us sometimes engage in. Two of the most popular are “Mind Reading” and “Fortune Telling,” both of which involve predicting negative outcomes and assumptions about what others are thinking. Eliminating these thoughts helps tremendously with development of healthy communication and lowering your own defense mechanisms. Find a full list of cognitive distortions here that you can identify and eliminate to help you master this holiday season.
Dealing with mental illness can make holidays more stressful, but it doesn’t have to. Practice these tips on your own or with a therapist!