Sorry about last week. I got sick. I try to practice what I preach and not push myself unnecessarily hard. But we are back this week and that’s what matters!
The holidays are crazy for anyone, but particularly for people who may have some mental health issues. From negative associations to the stress of expectation, going into the holidays with no action plan or coping skills can lead to serious stress. I definitely see an increase in symptoms around the holidays in my clinical work. You even have this undercurrent of stress throughout all of the holiday films. It can be a stressful time for anybody.
Today, I want to talk about some strategies that you can use to survive the holidays. To be clear, these are good strategies for any time that you have gatherings, it’s just a convenient container. If you don’t celebrate holidays, these tips can still be helpful to you. So let’s get into it.
The first thing to talk about is the exhaustion that can come from being around so many family members. Sometimes this still occurs with small families just due to the feeling of being under pressure to “perform” during the gatherings.
I think we can take a note from smokers here. I don’t advocate smoking and don’t want you to smart, but one thing that a lot of people use smoking for is relaxation. Often they will say that smoking relaxes them, but often it’s really about taking the moment to step outside into the fresh air and take a breather for a few moments. You could easily implement this strategy for yourself. If it wouldn’t be weird for a smoker to go take a 5-minute break outside, it shouldn’t be weird for you.
Sometimes people get a little overconcerned about the logistics of how to take a break like this. What excuse you should make, how you should make sure people don’t think you’re weird, etc. Just know that taking a breather isn’t that weird. You don’t necessarily need an excuse – you could just say “hey I’ll be back in a minute” and walk out. Even if someone asks you where you’re going and you say that you wanted to just get a little air for a minute, that’s pretty normal sounding.
It can be helpful to notice what your signs of fatigue are because it can sometimes sneak up on you. For some it might be muscle tension for others it is the tendency to want to snap at people or the inability to focus on what people are talking about. Keeping these signs in mind can help you perform a little diagnostic in the moment and take those breaks when you need to.
The breaks thing can be applied to small groups as well. If you have a “buddy” in your family, you might pull them aside to have a little chat or just some side by side quiet time.
Another issue that comes up when you are in a situation where you are visiting extended family or coming home for the holidays is the issue of people not understanding your mental health issues. This is tough to speak in generalities about because there are obviously cultural differences, age differences, etc. to consider and you know you family a lot better than I do. However, it can be beneficial to prime people on what to expect from you so that they are not caught off guard and so that they don’t take anything personally.
If it is too difficult to express yourself clearly, you might consider writing a letter, similar to the ones that I have on my website for anxiety and depression. You can also enlist the help of a loved one to translate or warn other people. For instance you might have your mom let grandma know that sometimes you might suddenly disappear because you have some health issues to deal with and that she shouldn’t worry or take it personally, you are still having a good time.
A little bit of knowledge can go a long way. One thing that causes trouble for both individuals with mental health issues and their families is a lot of guesswork. When your family doesn’t know why you’re acting the way that you are, they are left to their own assumptions and interpretations of your behavior, which are often wrong.
At least if the issue is on the table and it has been said, they don’t need to wonder why you disappeared or why you might be off in space or fake smiling during dinner conversation. You only need to share as much as you are comfortable with, but it can be helpful to preempt your behavior if you do tend to follow a consistent pattern.
In the same way, it could be helpful to lay out some expectations or boundaries for others. For instance, you might give one or two topics that you would rather not discuss. You might also ask them to not constantly check in on you and trust that you will do what you need to do to keep yourself going. Or you might help them understand how they can help if they notice you are struggling.
One issue that can affect anyone, regardless of whether they struggle with mental health related issues is that the holidays often serve as a reminder of family members that are no longer alive. It can reopen the wounds of loss and grief that can make it difficult to enjoy the holidays without a sense of sorrow or guilt.
Grief works in its own way and the first thing to remember is that it’s totally normal for these feelings to resurface because you have so many memories and associations between that person and the holidays. Even though its been years, I find myself thinking about grandparents and loved ones that I have lost around the holidays because that’s just what we as humans do.
I can’t really give you any advice to get rid of the feeling of grief entirely, but I can give you some ideas about how you can be functional and avoid the gross feelings of guilt that can come along with grief.
First off – if you need to cry, cry. If you need to talk about it, talk about it. Often holding it in and trying to suppress the feelings is a losing battle that can really get dragged out over time. Sometimes you just need to let the feelings come. Don’t be too hard on yourself; that just means that you are human and you cared about them or at least that the loss and changes that come with loss are still affecting you. Nothing wrong with that.
You might also have your own intentional moment of recognition. Maybe this is a small ceremony of some kind, a letter, or just talking out loud to yourself and them.
I have always been a big fan of trying to balance the scales by creating something. When I say balance the scales, I mean that you are trying to compensate for something that is no longer in the world and it can sometimes be healing and beneficial to bring something new into the world. This could be a form of art, writing, or anything else that is productive. Even a facebook post could serve this purpose. I just got a memory on facebook from back in college when I lost one of my grandmothers and I shared a portion of a letter that I wrote to her.
Basically what I’m saying is that inviting the feelings and working through them is often much more effective than trying to force the feelings out. That hardly works.
The next topic that I want to discuss is a little more general, but it’s the tendency to take on too much or push yourself too far during the holidays.
If you look at your functioning on a normal day and compare that to the expectations that you have for yourself on a holiday, often they are super different.
For some reason, we expect ourselves to be super heroes around the holidays. We expect ourselves to small talk for 20 hours straight while keeping a genuine smile, we expect ourselves to cook an enormous amount of food, we expect ourselves to be responsible for the happiness and enjoyment of so many other people. It’s like a marathon.
So some of you could definitely use a reminder to step back and evaluate whether you might be going overboard. Of course you can go a bit further on a holiday, just like you would push a little harder when going to a theme park or something like that, but you can’t be totally unrealistic with your limits.
One simple exercise that can help with this is pulling out a piece of paper or your journal and writing “How much am I doing?” at the top and then literally just list everything that you have been doing in prep and everything that you plan to do for the holiday. This doesn’t have to be all specific tasks related to the meal, but it can also be things like “entertain mom while dad is cooking” or “make sure Johnny doesn’t get too drunk”.
If you notice that you are doing TOO much to stay sane, I encourage you to consider what you could cut or modify to change that. It’s pretty common to place too much emphasis and meaning on every action. Like nobody will remember if you brought 2 pies instead of 3. That’s something that could be cut.
If you are having trouble being realistic, bring in some help. Have a trusted friend or family member evaluate what you have been doing and what you plan to do and let them call you on it if needed.
The last thing that I will about surviving the holidays is that it’s okay to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and also have some hard and fast limits. Boundaries are healthy for everyone because they set up the rules of engagement.
For instance, if you are in mixed political company and you will not be able to enjoy yourself if your racist uncle is needlessly baiting you, you could state that this topic is a no-go. It can be rough to do, but in order to set the expectation, you could say “alright – I’m just going to let you guys know that I really don’t want to talk about politics or XYZ situation today. If it comes up, I might just step out.”
It can help to have other things to talk about as well, as idle conversation often turns to current events or gossip. It’s a lot easier to redirect someone when you have something to redirect them towards.
We may assign special meaning to holidays, but really they are just like all other days and you are still the same person that you are on those other days. You still have your limits and there’s nothing wrong with that. Your feelings are just as valid as they were last week.
Don’t neglect your self-care during this time. In recognizing that it is just another day, don’t forget to take care of yourself in the same way (to whatever extent you can). Give yourself the chance to meditate in the morning if that’s part of your routine. Escape to Starbucks or something to get a little break and write in your journal. Continue to take care of yourself because you matter.
Practicing mindfulness and staying up on that skill is vital as well because it can help you to roll with the punches rather than getting hung up on external or internal stressors.
Unfortunately, there are some situations that come up that there are no good answers for. For instance, if someone in the family has abused you and the rest of the family refuses to recognize this truth. Sometimes that requires you to take a more drastic action, such as making an ultimatum or leaving altogether, and that’s never easy.
I do want to say that your feelings and needs are valid and you need to do what you need to do to keep yourself and your family safe. Never be ashamed of that.
Now I know that wasn’t the happiest note to end on, but it’s real and I wanted to make sure it’s said. Family is important, but they are also circumstantial. You got your blood family by choice. If needed, never forget that you get to choose who your real family is.
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