Navigating the Holidays, a Pandemic, and your Mental Health

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The holidays aren’t just full of cozy family gatherings and crisp winter walks followed by hot chocolate. The disruption to routine, the increase in social obligations and financial and familial pressure can take its toll, particularly for those with mental health struggles. Given the added challenges of navigating the pandemic, the holidays can seem even more daunting this year. Perhaps you’re unable to travel to visit loved ones, or maybe visiting family triggers difficult emotions such as loss. And of course, the holidays come with those dreaded expectations, whether it’s cooking the perfect meal, dealing with financial strain and pressure to buy gifts, or feeling obligated to attend social events when you’re not in the mood. Below are some suggestions for prioritizing your mental health this festive season. A NAMI study showed that 64% of people feel the holidays add greater strain to their mental health.

Managing Expectations

Everyone has different expectations during the holidays, which can lead to conflict and disappointment. None of us are immune to the constant marketing of perfect holiday cheer. Expectations of the perfect meal, the perfect gift, the perfect family vacation can lead to financial strain, stress, and relationship conflict. Take time to reflect on your own expectations and consider letting some of them go.

Fostering Connection if You’re Unable to Visit Loved Ones

With travel restrictions in place, you might not be able to visit loved ones this year. Scheduling calls and Zoom chats are helpful, but don’t take the place of in-person connection. Perhaps there are others in your community that are isolated or struggling during the holidays. You might consider volunteering, dropping off a meal to a neighbour, or asking a friend if they would like to join you for a walk. If you are grieving the loss of a loved one, be gentle with yourself and consider finding ways to honour them.

Setting Healthy Boundaries

While connecting with loved ones can be wonderful, family dynamics can also be stressful and complicated. Acknowledge your own needs and take a break from social activities and gatherings when you’re feeling overwhelmed. While being honest about your needs can feel intimidating, it’s better than becoming drained and resentful. This could include simple shifts such as declining to attend an event, asking for help preparing a meal, or setting budget limits for gifts.

Continue to Prioritize Healthy Routines

The holidays can be quite disruptive to normal routines—with an abundance of errands to run and gatherings to attend, self-care practices can be pushed to the side. Many people find the shortening hours of daylight difficult on their mood and sleep routines. Social gatherings can also come with more pressure to consume alcohol, which might provide temporary relief, but can worsen depression and anxiety.

Here are a few tips for finding some grounding during the festive season:

  • Stick to good sleep hygiene practices when possible, such as avoiding screens before bed and setting time aside for relaxing activities in the evening.
  • Balance out those delightful Christmas indulgences with healthy meals, exercise, and hydration.
  • Try out a SAD light to lift your mood during the dark winter months.
  • Carve out time for your needs: whether that’s reading a good book, going for an outdoor wander, scheduling a therapy session, or finding time for an activity that brings you joy.
  • Be kind to yourself: the holidays can bring up stress and complex emotions, particularly given the uncertainties and complications of the pandemic. You’re not alone, and it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling.

While the holidays can be full of beautiful traditions and cherished time with loved ones, the festive season can also be challenging for our mental health, particularly with the added strain of the pandemic. Disrupted routines, fewer hours of daylight, complex family situations, and unreasonable expectations can all contribute to greater stress. Remember that many people struggle during the holidays and you’re not alone. Be kind to yourself and take time to prioritize your mental health.

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