The holidays can be a joy-filled season, but they can also be challenging and stressful, especially for those impacted by mental illness.

A recent NAMI study showed that 64% of people with mental illness report holidays make their conditions worse. “For many people the holiday season is not always the most wonderful time of the year,” said NAMI medical director Ken Duckworth. For individuals and families coping with mental health challenges, the holiday season can be a lonely or stressful time, filled with anxiety and/or depression.

If you’re living with a mental health condition, stress can also contribute to worsening symptoms. Examples: in schizophrenia, it can encourage hallucinations and delusions; in bipolar disorder, it can trigger episodes of both mania and depression.

Here are some suggestions for how you can reduce stress and maintain good mental health during the holiday season:

Accept your needs. Be kind to yourself! Put your own mental and physical well-being first. Recognize what your triggers are. Is shopping for holiday gifts too stressful for you? What is making you feel physically and mentally agitated? Once you know this, you can avoid them when it’s reasonable to, and to cope when you can’t.

Write a gratitude list and offer thanks. As we near the end of the year, it’s a good time to reflect back on what you are grateful for, then thank those who have supported you. 2020 has been an especially challenging year for us all. In the midst of it all, is there something or someone for whom you are grateful? (While you’re at it, share what you’re grateful for with us in our Community Voices quick survey!)

Manage your time and don’t try to do too much. Prioritizing your time and activities can help you use your time well. Making a day-to-day schedule helps ensure you don’t feel overwhelmed by everyday tasks and deadlines. It’s okay to say no to plans that don’t fit into your schedule or make you feel good.

Be realistic. Even pre-pandemic, the happy lives of the people shown in those holiday commercials were fictional. We all have struggles one time or another and it’s not realistic to expect otherwise. Sometimes, it’s simply not possible to find the perfect gift or have a peaceful time with family.

Set boundaries. Family dynamics can be complex. Acknowledge them and accept that you can only control your role. If you need to, find ways to limit your exposure.

Practice relaxation. Deep breathing, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation are good ways to calm yourself. Taking a break to refocus can have benefits beyond the immediate moment.

Exercise daily. Schedule time to walk outside, bike or join a dance class. Whatever you do, make sure it’s fun. Daily exercise naturally produces stress-relieving hormones in your body and improves your overall physical health. 

Set aside time for yourself. Schedule something that makes you feel good. It might be reading a book, going to the movies, getting a massage, listening to music you love, or taking your dog for a walk. It’s okay to prioritize alone time you need to recharge.

Eat well. With dinners, parties, and cookie trays at every turn, our eating habits are challenged during the holiday season. Try to maintain a healthy diet through it all. Eating unprocessed foods, like whole grains, vegetables, and fresh fruit is the foundation for a healthy body and mind. Eating well can also help stabilize your mood.

Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is known to adversely affect mental health and symptoms of some mental health conditions, like mania in bipolar disorder, can be triggered by getting too little sleep. More on getting good sleep.

Avoid alcohol and drugs. Drinking or taking drugs won’t actually reduce stress: in fact, they often worsen it. If you’re struggling with substance abuse, educate yourself and get help.

Spend time in nature. Studies show that time in nature reduces stress. (More on the mental health benefits of nature.) Need to break away from family during a holiday gathering? Talk a walk in a local park.

Volunteer. The act of volunteering can provide a great source of comfort. By helping people who are not as fortunate, you can also feel less lonely or isolated and more connected to your community. You can find out if there is a safe way to volunteer in your community.

Keep up or seek therapy. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it may be time to share with your mental health professional. They can help you pinpoint specific events that trigger you and help you create an action plan to change them. If you’re already seeing a therapist, keep it up.

Find support. Whether it’s with friends, family, a counselor or a support group, airing out and talking can help. Consider attending one of our free support groups.

Get help in a crisis. If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health emergency or crisis, there is help. Call 911 for emergencies. For a crisis, the Crisis Hotline is always open at 800-854-7771, or you can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741. Click here for more crisis hotlines and hospitals.

More on the subject:

Mental Health and the Holiday Blues (NAMI)

Beat Back the Holiday Blues (NAMI)

9 Keys to a Resilient Holiday (Psychology Today)

How to Maintain Mental Health During the Holiday Season

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