5 Ways to Protect Your Mental Health This Holiday Season

The holiday season is supposed to be a festive time of gratitude, joy, and cheer. It can also be a season ripe with stress, anxiety, guilt, and depression. That is especially true this year, as we continue to exist in the throes of the corona virus pandemic. As numbers rise in most of the country and experts spread words of warning about small family gatherings, the holiday season will definitely look and feel different for many people.

Given this new reality, it is wise to expect some emotional difficulties during the holiday season this year. This has been an extremely difficult year due to the pandemic, and that isn’t going away just because the holidays are approaching. Some people might find themselves feeling more stressed than usual, due to the loss of a job or trying to balance holiday preparation while their kids are distance-learning. Others may experience heightened feelings of loneliness or isolation if their family forgoes the traditional holiday gatherings for safety reasons. Some will be dealing with the intense grief that comes when faced with the first holiday season after the loss of a loved one. And there may be others who struggle during the holidays every year due things like to high-conflict families, trauma, or other challenging circumstances.

Whatever the reason, mental health experts expect people to struggle more than usual with anxiety, grief, depression, and loneliness this season. To extend support to those who need it, here are five helpful ways you can protect your mental health this holiday season.

Set Clear Boundaries

Even during the pandemic, you might be expected to spend extra “quality” time with your family even if that isn’t your idea of a good time. So, what are you supposed to do if family time creates anxiety for you? Remind yourself that you get to determine how much (or how little) time you spend with your family. Give yourself permission to make choices that are healthy for you regarding how much family time you feel you can manage or want to manage.

To establish a boundary around family time, decide for yourself how much time you want to spend with them and let your family know in advance in order to manage expectations. This is especially important if your family is high-conflict or if anybody in your family has a habit of being pushy, demanding, or clingy.

Here are some easy ways to think about the structure of a holiday to help you figure out where to set your limit:

● Skip the breakfast celebration and join the party in the late afternoon before dinner.

● Let your family know you’ll be there for Christmas Eve or Christmas night, but not for both.

● Pick just one night of Hanukkah to spend with your family

● If traveling is involved, tell your family that you’ll be staying at a hotel and will be incorporating some day trips to nearby landmarks as part of your visit

Hint: Clearly communicating what your time boundaries are is important. By letting your family know how much time you will spend with them early, you can manage their expectations and avoid a potential conflict that could arise.

Practice Mindful Spending

The gift-giving tradition can lead some people to stretch their financial limits in any given year. This year, as people cope with reduced hours or the loss of jobs, finances are even more important. You might find yourself feeling guilty if you can’t be as generous with gifts as you usually are. Setting a budget for your gift-giving can be a helpful way to set monetary limits to be more mindful with your spending.

Determining beforehand how much you are able to spend on presents is important. These tips can help you follow your own financial boundary:

● Be honest with yourself about your finances — decide on a specific amount of money before you start shopping

● Make agreements with friends or family members about how much to spend — it’s okay to set a limit that is less than what you would normally spend

● Create a spreadsheet to help you track your spending

● Break your budget down person by person — know how much you are able to spend on each person before you start shopping

Hint: It’s easy to get carried away when you use a credit card. Using cash requires you to be more mindful and aware of how you’re spending your money. If you can, commit to using only cash for all of your holiday shopping to ensure that you are being as intentional with your budget as possible.

Practice Self-Care Daily

It’s easy to get caught up in the momentum of the holiday, which can cause you to lose sight of your self-care practices. Especially if anxiety, depression, or guilt comes up, you might find yourself even more tempted to avoid the activities that will ground you.

Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Taking time to care for your mental health is like brushing your teeth every day — you may not notice the positive results right after you do it, but doing it daily will prevent some serious issues later on.

People tend to think of self-care as luxury activities like mani-pedis or spa days, when self-care is actually much more than that. Self-care is also the activities you need to do regularly to ensure you can function at your best on a regular basis, including things like:

● Making sure you get enough sleep

● Eating meals regularly

● Practicing moderation with things like desserts and alcohol

● Doing the dishes to help keep your home tidy

● Getting regular exercise — even a nightly walk around the block helps

● Limiting time on things that “suck” your energy, like electronic devices and watching tv

● Engaging in activities that you enjoy, like reading, hiking, writing, or painting

Hint: Practicing self-care one day will help set you up to be successful the next day. One helpful way to motivate yourself to engage in some of the lesser enjoyable self-care activities is to ask yourself every day, “What’s one thing I can do for myself today that my future self will thank me for?”

Don’t Fight Your Grief

The holidays are always especially difficult for people who are grieving the loss of someone they love. The corona virus pandemic has caused families to lose loved ones prematurely, which can make the holiday season hard to cope with.

Grief doesn’t go away during the holidays — in fact, the holidays can actually trigger more frequent and heightened waves of grief. This holiday season, you may be expected to act like everything is normal when you know it’s not.

Approach the holiday season in whichever way you need to this year. If you want to ignore them altogether, that’s okay. If you want to find private ways to honor the traditions you shared with your deceased loved one, that’s okay too.

Here are some other helpful ways to lean into grief during the holidays:

● Take time out to honor your loved one, including the traditions you used to share

● Give yourself permission to skip some of the festivities if you’re not up for it

● Try not to isolate yourself too much — find people who can accept your grief and make an effort to spend time with them

Hint: Your grief might feel extra intense during the holidays, which is normal. Recognize that grief comes in waves and appreciate the moments when the wave has recessed. If you need to, it’s okay to reach out to a therapist for some extra support

Honor Your Needs

You’ve likely been through a difficult year. If you have less motivation, less energy, or less enthusiasm than you normally do during the holidays, don’t try to push yourself. It’s okay to limit your activities this year. Set reasonable expectations for yourself, based on what your current circumstances are. These tips can help you honor what you need during the holidays:

● Give yourself permission to take it easy

● Create new traditions for yourself and your loved ones, based on what life looks like right now

● Devote some time to activities that fill you up, whether it’s spending a day reading in bed, watching your favorite holiday movies, or driving around looking at the holiday lights

Hint: Everybody is going to have to figure out how to navigate the holidays this year during the pandemic. Practice being vulnerable and talk about it with your loved ones — what you’ll miss, what you wish were different, and how you hope it will be next year. We often avoid talking about things when they are hard, which doesn’t help. Having an open discussion about the challenges you’re having this year can actually help you cope with them.

Seek Out Support

Support is going to be a key ingredient to getting through the rest of 2020. If you’re struggling, it’s okay to reach out to friends, continue your video calls with family, and even contact a therapist if you need to. It might not feel like it, but we will get through this pandemic and eventually, the holiday season will return to the time of joy and cheer that it once was.

BabitaSpinelli, LP, JD is a renown Psychotherapist and Certified Coach. She provides an empowering space for clients to explore what holds them back, while challenging them to make changes to help them reach their goals. Babita works with individuals who are experiencing significant life transitions and couples looking to rebuild their relationship. Babita is the recipient of the 2019 New York Psychotherapist Award and is frequently featured in the media as a relationship expert. She is a Certified Gottman Level 2 Therapist, Collaborative Divorce Coach and Parent Coordinator. Babita’s therapy and coaching services are global and provided virtually. Learn more about Babita on her website, Opening the Doors Psychotherapy.

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Babita Spinelli is a global certified coach, therapist, speaker & owner of Opening the Doors Psychotherapy. She works with clients nationally & internationally.

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Babita Spinelli

Babita Spinelli

Babita Spinelli is a global certified coach, therapist, speaker & owner of Opening the Doors Psychotherapy. She works with clients nationally & internationally.

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