Gifts, family time, cuddling up by the fireplace, snow angels, soft cookies, cups of hot cocoa — for many people, the holiday season is pleasant. But for others, it could be dreaded. Maybe it’s the fact that you know you’ll have to chat with that uncle you always bump heads with, or perhaps you’re a perfectionist obsessively fretting about buying the right gifts.
Whatever’s concerning you, you’re not alone: According to a 2015 Healthline survey, 44% of people report feeling “somewhat stressed” during the holidays, with 18% feeling “very stressed.” The top causes of stress ranged from finances (47%) to eating right and staying fit (16%), among others. So, it’s vital to prioritize yourself as much as you would at any other time of year. To navigate your mental health during the holiday season, Elite Daily spoke to three experts about their best guidance, because care is a gift to give yourself.
Plan Ahead & Think About Potential Triggers
With many people flying home for the holidays, it’s easy to find yourself back in a space that feels difficult — maybe old grievances will resurface, or you find yourself forced back into challenging relationships that you thought you had moved on from.
“Because holidays are a time that people have traditionally spent with family, there’s a lot of reminders of things from the past,” says Laura Minero, Ph.D., a Los Angeles-based licensed counseling psychologist. “When you’re around people that have contributed to creating your present patterns, you can just come right back to those patterns, even if you’re someone that has been out of the family home for 20 years.”
Even if your source of tension is not your family, it’s essential to take some time to reflect on what sets you off and how you can best prepare. “Planning ahead to minimize your emotional fallout is so crucial because whenever we’re triggered, not only are we upset in our head but our bodies are triggered too, and it takes time for us to return to a baseline,” says Paula Durlofsky, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist based out of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
Know Your Limits
If you’re already having difficulties with mental health, the holiday season can exacerbate things. In a 2014 study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64% of people with mental illness reported that the holidays made their conditions worse.
Alex Villarreal, M.A., LPC, an Austin, Texas-based licensed professional counselor, explains that our nervous systems are regulated in our day-to-day function, so we’re able to engage normally in ways that feel safe. But when we’re undergoing stress, our systems can become unregulated. That, he says, is when we start to “shut down, disconnect, withdraw, or be hyperactivated.”
“We all have limits and different baselines,” Durlofsky advises. “Get a sense of your own baseline and what is too much or too little, and permit yourself to take breaks.” She says to feel free to skip that holiday party if you’re feeling out of steam. “When we push ourselves we’re less tolerant, tired, and not as in control of our reactivity or emotions — and that could end up causing more harm for us.”
State How You Feel & Enforce Boundaries
We all have that one family member. Whether it’s your grandma pressuring you to have kids or genuinely toxic family members who gaslight you, knock down your self-esteem, or other unhealthy patterns, there’s bound to be something that could be irritating during a large family gathering.
“Know what you’re walking into and what types of boundaries will be necessary for you to set up to keep yourself safe or comfortable,” says Villarreal. “It can be helpful to connect with a friend or therapist to practice boundary setting and work through any hesitations, fears, or guilt around setting boundaries.”
“At the end of the day, we can’t control other people but we can control ourselves,” adds Durlofsky. Stepping out of the room, going for a walk, and changing the subject are all options. “But make sure you honor yourself and say, ‘You know, that really hurt me.’ Your family member may not be able to hear that, but it’s so meaningful that you’re able to say that to yourself.”
Take A Break From Your Phone
It seems as if ever since Instagram entered the chat, there have been constant reports about how social media is destroying users’ mental health. And yet, how cute are those cat TikToks, and why is doomscrolling on Twitter so compelling? It’s great to use social media in moderation, but when you feel it affecting your mood — due to FOMO, envy, insecurity, or other triggers — while you’re around the dinner table with fam, it may be time to set some limits.
Durlofsky, the author of Logged In and Stressed Out: How Social Media Is Affecting Your Mental Health and What You Can Do About It, says that a helpful way to keep your social media usage in check is to treat it like a scheduled meal or coffee break: “15 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes in the afternoon,” she says. Research has found that passively scrolling through social media can lead to worse physical and mental health. “Sometimes you need to take a break and understand that [doing so] is a form of self-care and self-love,” Durlofsky continues.
Decide How You Want To Deal With Harmful Comments
For members of the LGBTQ+ community, going home for family gatherings can be a whole other ordeal, full of unique stressors and complications. Villarreal says that pressure for people to show up for the holidays in a way that’s not fully authentic can be isolating: “It often leaves this sense of self-abandonment,” he says.
One potential trigger could be family members misgendering you or making inappropriate comments. “I don’t think we talk enough about how comments on your appearance are so prevalent in the LGBTQ+ community. It’s stigmatized or profiled in your appearance, so it’s common for folks who maybe haven't seen you in a long time to make comments about the way you look — and they could be really harmful,” says Minero, who specializes in caring for Two-Spirit and other LGBTQ+ clients. She says that it’s more than all right to vocalize your discomfort and remain firm with your boundaries.
“I’ve [personally] navigated the family dynamic,” says Minero, who is queer and gender expansive. Her own family, she says, struggled to understand how to support her and the LGBTQ+ community. “It really took letting them know explicitly what behaviors are harmful and which ones push you away,” she adds. “I’ve encouraged youth to say to their parents, ‘Whenever I come home, you make comments about my appearance, and they put me down and make me not want to spend time with you. I’m asking for the sake of our relationship that you please not make any negative comments about my appearance.’ And that’s it — leave it there.”
But a lot depends on your family dynamic, says Minero. “If you’re not out, you can still say, ‘That hurts me’ or ‘It doesn’t make me want to come home.’ Part of setting boundaries is making it OK to express our emotions.” If worse comes to worst, you can still restrict your interactions with certain family members, shorten your stay, or even invite a friend or significant other as a buffer.
Practice Gratitude & Focus On The Positives
The best way to approach this season is with an open and prepared mind: If you’re aware of the situations you may face, you can better maneuver them. And who knows? Maybe things will go right after all!
“[Sometimes], my clients expect all of these things to go wrong and we have like this grand plan, but what if things went right? Or what if some things went well?” Minero asks. “Are you able to recognize those? Tuning and leaning into gratitude and noticing the positive things that you got out of the holidays can be helpful.”
Of course, if you’re experiencing anxiety or depression during the holiday season, you may be dealing with it at other times too. If you find that you could benefit from expert help, don’t hesitate to do some research and reach out to a licensed professional.
Alex Villarreal, M.A., LPC, licensed professional counselor in private practice at Real Path Psychotherapy