Depressed woman at Christmas

The time strains, social obligations, and financial burdens associated with the holiday season are a source of stress for many, but they can be particularly difficult to deal with for people living with a mental illness. We’ll cover some possible coping strategies for dealing with this added stress when you have a mental illness. We will also provide some tips for people looking to be supportive of their loved ones with mental illnesses during this time.

Of course, there is a wide spectrum of mental health issues and an endless combination of life situations that we could never cover in one article. This advice is not meant to replace the guidance of a mental health professional, and it’s unlikely that you’ll find a perfect or easy answer in this list. Take whatever advice works for your situation, and leave the rest behind.

Holiday Coping Tips for People With a Mental Illness

Adjust or let go of expectations. Sometimes feelings of distress are a result of reality not meeting our expectations. The holidays often center around family traditions, and we might expect things to be as they were in previous years. But family dynamics change, loved ones pass away, and adulthood shifts our perspective. As much as we might like for the holidays to be a time when we can relive past joys, we have to learn to meet ourselves, our families, and the world where they are in the present.

Make an effort to let go of any idealized or romanticized images you have of “the holidays,” and try to accept whatever happens. You can include your personal feelings in this as well. Many of us believe that the holidays should give us a sense of happiness or well-being. If they don’t, we may feel guilty or disappointed. Try to allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling without judgment.

Don’t take on responsibilities that tend to overwhelm you. We get so caught up in making the holidays enjoyable for everyone else that we forget to tend to our own needs. For someone with a mental illness, this can be especially detrimental. Try to keep your contributions at a level you’re truly comfortable with. For example, if you always host Christmas dinner but you think it will be too much for you, let your family know that you’d like someone else to take on that role this year. If you don’t feel comfortable with this change, consider making the meal a potluck, using more convenience foods, or asking in advance for help with preparation and cleanup.

Similarly, don’t push your budget and stress levels past their limits. It may help to be upfront with people about what you can and cannot do financially. You can also consider avoiding the holiday shopping rush by purchasing gifts online. And for some, making large batches of baked goods to hand out is less stressful than shopping.

Ask for extra support from people who are aware and understanding of your situation. This support can look many different ways depending on what kind of support system you have in place. If you have a therapist, you can look into scheduling extra appointments around this time. If you have a supportive partner, let them know when you need practical or emotional help. If there is an event that you feel obligated to attend, but you don’t feel supported by the people who will be there, consider bringing a friend who will support you. And if you feel that there is no one close to you to call on, try to be especially kind to yourself, and consider seeking outside help.

Nurture your physical health. Many people use diet and exercise to boost their mental wellness, and there is strong evidence that this is a good strategy. Additionally, getting the right amount of sleep is instrumental for proper brain function. It can be challenging, but try not to disrupt your routine to the point that healthy habits get pushed aside. If you’re going to be visiting relatives for days at a time, think about packing food that keeps you feeling good. Or if you know you won’t have access to your normal exercise equipment, consider walking or jogging instead.

Take your medication. If you’ve been prescribed medication for your mental illness, you might need to take extra care to remember to take it around this time. Busy schedules and a focus on others can make it easy for your own needs to slip your mind. Set an alarm on your phone, or write yourself a reminder and pin it somewhere you know you’ll see it.

Consider doing something totally different. There are many reasons why a person might choose to entirely forgo traditional holiday festivities. Maybe the stress is too much, or perhaps they don’t have a healthy relationship with their family. For some, being alone at this time can be distressing. If you find yourself in a situation such as this, consider making plans of your own for particularly significant days. These plans can be as simple as eating out with a friend or going to see a movie. If it’s within your means, you might even plan a vacation or a weekend getaway around this time. Some people choose to volunteer at a soup kitchen. Volunteering is a great option for someone looking to connect with others.

How to Help a Loved One With a Mental Illness During the Holidays

If you know someone with a mental illness who is struggling with the pressure associated with the holiday season, there are a few things you can do to make it a little easier for them.

Respect their decisions. It’s easy to take it personally when someone says they don’t want to attend a party or dinner you’re working hard to put together. However, many people choose to avoid events in order to maintain their mental wellness. It’s likely they already feel guilty for declining, so simply accepting their answer gracefully can have a positive impact on their health. The same goes if a person chooses not to drink alcohol or eat certain foods, or if they choose to leave a function early. Making decisions like these can be difficult to begin with. Don’t make it harder by questioning the person’s motives or pressuring them to change their mind.

Invite them to spend time with you one on one. If someone you’d like to see chooses not to attend group functions, consider inviting them to spend time just with you. Having a mental illness can be an isolating experience, so offering less stressful options for socializing is sometimes helpful. Going out for coffee or food can be good choices if your friend or family member doesn’t mind public places. If they do, consider having dinner or a simple visit at your place or theirs. Of course, they might still choose to decline, and it’s still important for you to be OK with that.

Check in with them regularly. If you want to be a point of support for someone with a mental illness, one of the best things you can do is to check in with them consistently (but not constantly). Ask them how they are and whether they need help with anything. The kind of assistance you can provide will depend on your own situation, so it’s OK to be specific about what you’re able to offer. It’s also possible that your loved one won’t answer your calls or respond to your messages every time. If this happens, leave them a voicemail, or send them a text reminding them that you care and are there for them if they need you.

Treat them like a whole person. It’s great to check in with your loved one about their mental health, but be sure to ask them about other aspects of their life as well. It might be tiring or difficult for them to explain how they’re feeling all the time. Try to make room in the conversation for other topics.

These can be helpful strategies for reducing and coping with holiday-related agitation and stress, but they are unlikely to be useful in a crisis situation. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health emergency, don’t hesitate to seek immediate and professional help.

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