For many people, the holiday season is filled with joy and festive family gatherings. For others, it can be the most difficult and stressful time of the year.
Mental health experts at The Royal suggest the top challenges people face around the holidays fall into five categories: managing expectations, financial stress, lack of self care, overindulgence, and loneliness.
It’s hard not to get caught up in society’s idea of what the holidays should look like. TV shows, social media, advertisements, all contribute to the image of the perfect holiday. Christmas movies, which are ubiquitous this time of year, have endings that wrap up nicely with a metaphorical bow on top.
“For many people who are dealing with things like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse, the reality is that there isn’t always a happy ending,” says Jillian Crabbe, a social worker at The Royal. “Problems aren’t miraculously going to be solved over the holidays.”
Crabbe says that managing expectations is key to getting through the holidays. She recommends identifying triggers, setting realistic expectations based on past experiences, and preparing appropriate solutions or responses ahead of time. For example: if the annual Christmas party at Aunt Martha’s is a challenge for your son who is sensitive to noise and chaos, you can plan to arrive late and leave early or schedule a visit with Aunt Martha on a quieter day.
Sometimes it’s not enough to have a plan A, but also a plan B. (A plan C might also come in handy.) If dinner conversation is a minefield whenever Uncle Frank is in town, plan A can be as simple as taking a deep breath and changing the topic. Plan B might be casually excusing yourself to get a drink of water. Plan C could involve recruiting an understanding friend at the table beforehand and a secret signal to go “help” in the kitchen.
“Having a plan for these anticipated stressors helps people so much,” says Crabbe. “Take the time to think ahead about solutions, so the solutions will be there when you need them in the heat of the moment.”
Issues around finances are often compounded over the holidays. It’s easy to get swept up in the moment and overspend on food, entertainment, and gifts, especially given the surge of seasonal advertisements that flood our mailboxes, inboxes, and news feeds.
Can’t afford the latest shiny gadget? It’s ok to let the recipients – even kids – know that it’s not in the cards. (A sample script: “Santa’s not going to bring you an iPhone, but you will get four gifts you’ll really like: something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read.”)
“Be mindful of your values, so you can check in with your expectations and make it less stressful for yourself,” suggests Crabbe. “Ask yourself, what is the true meaning of Christmas for me?”
Gifts that don’t have a price tag are often the most memorable. Crabbe suggests we find value in baking cookies, making a nice card, or writing a letter. “Giving things from the heart and doing non-structured low cost activities can be just as fulfilling, maybe even more so than other extravagances during the holidays,” she says.
“Be mindful of your values, so you can check in with your expectations and make it less stressful for yourself. Ask yourself, what is the true meaning of Christmas for you?”
Lack of self-care
Self-care is a potent remedy for stress and general well-being.
“Many of us see self-care as an ‘extra’ when we should be seeing it as a prescription for our own wellness and as a tool to help us cope,” says Crabbe. “That hour at the gym is an hour well spent.”
Unfortunately, the holidays are often so busy that many people let go of their tried and true strategies for self-care.
If we don’t take care of ourselves, it’s very hard to take care of others.
“You can’t pour from an empty cup,” says Crabbe. “If you haven’t filled up your own cup you can’t give anything to anybody else.”
Although it’s important to get the proper amount of sleep, be physically active, and eat balanced meals all year round, mental health experts say it’s critical to “double down” during the holidays.
Crabbe points out that hitting the gym isn’t the only way to practice self-care. It can be as simple as having a date night with your partner, doing a mindful meditation at work, or going for a walk at lunch.
“Self-care is anything you see value in and makes you feel good. We should look at it as something vital for our own well-being,” she says.
Crabbe says that loneliness is one of the biggest issues for caregivers and clients at The Royal.
“The expectation is that we’re supposed to be happy and that everything is supposed to go well and that the holiday season is supposed to be a time to be with your loved ones and celebrate,” she says. “And sometimes people don’t feel they have a lot to celebrate.”
There could be many reasons behind someone’s feelings of loneliness. The person may have lost someone, have a strained relationship with family members, or friends and family who live far away.
“And of course we know that so many members of our population are struggling with depression, and just struggling with mental illness in general,” says Crabbe.
There’s a misconception that asking someone who has a mental illness about their holiday plans is going to “push them over the edge,” says Crabbe, who points out that suicide attempts are actually higher in the summer, not around the holidays.
If you know someone who might be lonely over the holidays, it’s good to talk about it with them.
“It tells that person that you’re interested in them and that you care,” says Crabbe. “It’s helpful for people to talk about it. Reach out, and have a conversation about some of the things they could do on that day.” To that end, Crabbe shares some examples:
- Surround yourself with people. The festive spirit can be contagious, so go where the people are. (It’s ok if they’re not “your” people!) Go to the mall, or to a friend’s house. Many churches open their doors and welcome the wider community for special holiday events and programs, regardless of faith. Not only is it something to do, but it’s also a good opportunity to meet someone new.
- Volunteer. Give something of yourself – your time, your energy. “Research has proven that people can feel better just by giving back,” says Crabbe.
- Think about other activities that might decrease your sense of loneliness and help you get through the day. How about watching a funny movie? Going for a walk? Or baking a batch of cookies and sharing with a neighbour?
If December 25 is a hard day to get through, try to remember that it’s just one square on the calendar, and then it’s over.
“There is no right or wrong way to celebrate the holidays,” says Crabbe. “They can be whatever you want them to be.”
For many, the first thing that flies out the window as soon as December rolls around is the “everything in moderation” rule. For some people, the entire month is stuffed with office parties, cookie exchanges, holiday cocktails, and special dinners, which take a toll on our energy levels, our waistlines, and our overall health.
“It all seems really great at the time but we often have regrets afterward,” says Crabbe, who says that a bit of advance planning will help balance out seasonal overindulgence:
- Anticipate your weakness. Whether it’s sweet or savory, opt for your very favourite items in that category. (In other words, choose one delicious piece of homemade shortbread and really savour it, and skip the store-bought cookies you don’t care about.)
- Consider your future self when faced with indulgences. Will your future self be happy about those extra glasses of wine at the office party?
- Eat a healthy snack before going to an event where food will be served.
- Enlist a friend for distraction and support – someone who’ll gently steer you away from the cheese tray and remind you of the promise you made to yourself.
- Alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.
The holidays can be a particularly difficult time for someone with a substance use problem. To reduce harm related to alcohol, the CAMH Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines provide a good reference.
Remember that parties are supposed to be fun – and they are optional. It’s ok to say no.
Five final takeaways from the experts
• Be kind to your future self and take care of your health. If you build your foundation, you’ll be strong when you need it most.
• Don’t fall prey to the image of the “perfect” Hallmark holiday. Make your own traditions and take the time to do the things you enjoy.
• Keep things simple and ask for help if you need it.
• Recognize holiday “triggers” in ourselves and in our loved ones and make a plan.
• Remember that you control the holidays; they don’t control you.