The holiday season evokes something different in everyone. Some people experience a childlike elation, enjoying the well-wishes and whimsy of the season. Others look forward to time spent with family, the freedom to check out of work and surround themselves with those they love. However, for many people, the holidays are a major trigger for anxiety and depression.
There are many reasons why the holiday season may have a negative impact on one’s mental health: grieving the loss of a loved one, stressful family relationships, and financial hardship are just a few.
People also tend to overextend themselves during the holiday season—volunteer work, party planning, hosting guests, saying yes to every “help needed” request at your child’s school, attending every holiday party you’re invited to. These commitments can be emotionally, physically and financially exhausting!
Furthermore, the holidays often change our diet and sleeping patterns, which can exacerbate anxiety and depression even more. It’s a perfect mental health storm, and it can be hard to find a safe harbor.
Many times, people suffering from anxiety or depression simply want to stay home and avoid social gatherings, but with the holidays just around the corner, there are tips and tools that can help you navigate and even enjoy the many events with family and friends that pop up on your calendar this time of year.
Pick and choose who you spend time with.
The reality is, you don’t have to attend every single event if you don't want to. The key is choosing to be around people that are supportive, and make you feel good. That could mean your family, or maybe its a group of friends. If your co-workers trigger your anxiety or depression, skip your company's holiday party this year and hang out with your best friend that night instead. Or if your family causes you grief, don’t feel guilty taking a trip with your significant other instead of joining them like you probably feel obligated to do every year. Starting a new tradition can be a great way to break away from routines that might bring up sad memories.
One way to avoid feeling overwhelmed when your to-do list becomes as long as Santa's list is to sit down and do some planning before the holiday rush hits. Map out a schedule with any upcoming commitments, ensure your travel plans are in order, make note of gifts you still need to shop for, and even work out a rough budget for the items you plan to buy. The stress over logistics, purchases, and calendar conflicts will fall away, and having a plan in hand will empower you to say "no" when you're at risk of over committing yourself.
Eat smart during the holidays.
Indulging in sweets this season may be hurting more than its helping. More and more, we hear from experts and nutritionists about how our gut health is connected to our mental health.
When consuming foods like sweets or sugary beverages instead of fruits and vegetables, your body isn’t receiving the vitamins and minerals it needs to process and remove certain stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, and can eventually lead to inflammation which is associated with depression.
This does not mean you always have to skip out on a slice of pumpkin bread from your favorite cafe, it just means fueling your body with complex carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables instead of simple sugars consistently can help your body prepare and process those hormones better, and potentially decreasing symptoms of depression.
More water, less caffeine.
I know, this one is hard. But remember triggers? Well caffeinated drinks have been linked to triggering anxiety for a long time. In fact, the more coffee you consume, the more likely you are to experience anxiety or even a panic attack. Caffeine mimics the symptoms we feel when we are anxious, such as increased heart rate and restlessness, so it might be best to limit your intake during the holidays for smoother sailing.
Speaking of drinking...
Limiting the intake of alcohol during the holidays might be a wise choice as well. Alcohol consumption may feel like it's helping with the jitters of social anxiety or the sadness that comes with depressive episodes, but it's actually making things worse in the long term. Aclcohol changes levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain and can negatively affect your mental health. You'll almost always feel more anxious after the alcohol wears off. If you still feel like you need to relax, consider trading in your glass of wine for cup of good tea
Don’t forget "me time."
The holidays are all about giving, but that doesn’t mean you are allowed to forget about yourself and your needs. Many of us are doing so much for others during the last few months of the year, but it might be a good idea to step back and ask ourselves “what do I want?” Self care is crucial when you're struggling with mental health, so don’t feel guilty if you spend a little less on others and a little more on yourself, even during the holidays.
Make a list of all of the holiday things you do. Include gifts, decorating, events, baking, holiday cards and everything in between. Consider cutting out some of the things you do because you think you are expected to do them and prioritize the things that bring real meaning and joy to you and your family.
If you think that protecting time for what matters is selfish, remember how much more giving and loving you can be when you are healthy, rested, and engaged in your favorite things.
The most meaningful holiday seasons aren’t the ones with the most presents, the best meals, the craziest parties and the least amount of sleep. We find meaning in the holidays and all of our days when we create space to listen to our hearts, time to believe in magic, and to create the love, health and presence required to show all the way up for our lives.