Self-care for caregivers this holiday season

For many, the holidays are filled with joy, festivities, and family gatherings, but for caregivers with loved ones with mental illness, the season may bring additional challenges. 

Holiday stress may present triggers for our loved ones with mental illness. For example, for people with depression, the joy and festivities of the holiday season seem to amplify the inability to experience pleasure that is a hallmark of this illness. As families and friends come together, they may withdraw. 

For people with substance use issues, the endless parade of holiday parties and events where alcohol is present may be triggering and require specific coping strategies or avoiding social gatherings altogether. 

For family caregivers and their relatives, who may already being feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of looking after a loved one, holiday anticipation and excitement can sometimes turn into feeling stressed, sad, and lonely.

Here’s some advice for caregivers, from caregivers: 

Expectations

  • Plan for the worst and hope for the best. Write a list of potential problems that could arise. Think about how you could handle these situations, and write down your solutions. Visualize yourself handling difficult situations with grace and strength.
  • Set realistic expectations about what you can accomplish. It is often helpful to anticipate areas that may be stressful and change our approach to avoid unnecessary stress. Try to keep it simple.
  • Holiday movies often show perfect families, which can give us unrealistic expectations of how things are “supposed to be.” Remember that each family situation is unique, and to take things as they come.

Boundaries & balance

  • Ask for help and/or consider sharing holiday preparations with friends or family to ease the load.
  • Establish balance between what you do for others and what you do for yourself. Be gentle with yourself and aim for a reasonable schedule to avoid feeling exhausted.
  • If spending time with family is stressful, set limits on the amount of time spent with them. You won’t enjoy a visit if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Plan shorter or fewer visits so you have time to rest. Arrive late to functions and leave early. If you feel overwhelmed, plan a quiet celebration with a few people who are closest to you.
  • Remember that parties are supposed to be fun and are always optional. Do what’s fun. Skip what’s not.

Self-care

  • Get plenty of sleep, eat healthful foods, exercise regularly, and drink in moderation (if at all). Many people stop their health-promoting behaviors around the holidays, when this is the time to be particularly mindful about caring for our physical and mental health.
  • Try not to let the holidays take over. Take time to do the things you enjoy all year round.
  • Learn to say no if you are unable, or simply don’t want to do something. It’s okay to ask for time before responding. Sometimes we feel like we have to say “yes” when we want to say “no,” and delaying our response may help us say what we mean with grace.

Overindulging

  • During the holidays, it’s often easy to overeat and drink too much. For someone with a substance use concern, this can be a particularly difficult time.
  • Try to prioritize health. Festive food and drink can make us lethargic. Balance it out by trying not to overindulge, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, and drinking water to feel more energized.

Loneliness

  • Loneliness, sadness, frustration, loss, and fear are feelings that can surface during the holiday season. Give yourself permission to feel these things, and also to reach out for support.
  • Talk to people you trust who care. Let them know how they can help you through this difficult time.
  • Some charitable organizations and/or religious groups have special services for people who are alone during the holidays. This can be a good opportunity to talk to others and meet new friends. Nobody needs to be alone.
  • Start a new tradition and volunteer. Many charities and organizations need help during the holidays. This is also a good way to meet new friends and help those in need.

Financial stress

  • Plan unstructured, low-cost, fun holiday activities such as looking at holiday decorations and festive lighting, window-shopping, etc.
  • There is no need to spend precious time and money getting people the perfect gifts. If you cannot afford a lot of presents, let your family know. There are creative ways to give such as handmade gifts, baking, Secret Santa, donating to charity in lieu, or simple cards with thoughtful notes.

Did you know?

The Royal runs Family Information and Support Groups for caregivers. Your loved one does not need to be a client of The Royal for you to participate. For more information or to be added to the family caregiver mailing list, please email Juliet.Haynes@theroyal.ca.