Mental Health & the Holidays

Recently I submitted this writing for the fall issue of Inside Medicine Magazine and wanted to share here to. I believe this topic is so important and often something we struggle to navigate. I hope this lends some hope to your holiday season!

Perhaps you have heard of people, or you yourself experience stress around the holidays. We see it advertised as this amazing time of thankfulness and joy, and while it can be, the reality is it does not always feel that way. Family members we do not care to see, houses that bring back awful memories, the constant obligation to be “merry and bright”. Ugh.

This narrative is all to familiar in my office this time of year. Individuals who are functioning optimally throughout the year but mid-October hits and so does the dread. They share how the pit begins in their stomach and they just cannot shake it. Or they feel their blood pressure is through the roof 24/7 until after December 31st. They begin experiencing panic attacks, overwhelming anxiety, and high levels of stress, all because they are thinking about the impending holiday season. The range of symptoms that result from compromised mental health during the holidays is serious. We are aware that high levels of stress can affect you physically in many ways, this season is a prime time for those issues to arise. I invite you to discover why we feel this stress and what we can do about it.

Stress is your body’s response to external stimuli that presents a challenge or demand. It manifests as a feeling of emotional or physical tension and results from any event that creates feelings of anger, frustration, nervousness, and even motivation. Stress is not inherently bad. There are many benefits of the stress response when we are properly managing the effects and input. Think about how you use to stress to finish that assignment at the last moment or push through a tough workout. However, stress becomes a negative when we are struggling to process the received stimuli appropriately and become overwhelmed by the information. In a nutshell, stress is the way we describe the feeling we get when are faced with something that seems out of our control or beyond our abilities.

Combatting stress, especially around the holidays can be helpful since lower stress levels equates to a higher likelihood to enjoy the present. Relishing in the here-and-now triggers our brain to transmit positive neural signals which assist in creating new, happier memories. This process is crucial in rewriting negative or unhelpful memories from the past. How do we execute this on a practical level?

1. Recognize what your triggers are. Stress tends to present itself in similar situations. For example, you may experience the same feelings from hanging out with family who do not communicate clearly and frequently leave you struggling to be heard as well as in a work setting where your coworkers are not listening to your input. The trigger here is the reality, or anticipation, of being unheard. The physical tension grows in your body as it recalls the defeat in past engagements with these people. The physical may be joined by emotional anguish from feeling so desperately voiceless. Your stress response in this moment is informing you of how your system was unable to find a solution in the past. That deficit is trying to warn you to avoid the situation in order to prevent experiencing those feelings again. Recognizing the trigger helps you understand BEFORE the event that you may need to consider your options before jumping in.

2. Understand you can set boundaries for yourself. Boundaries are often misrepresented as a bad thing but should be a part of all relationships. Boundaries allow an individual the opportunity to take their beliefs, needs, and limitations into account in order to advocate for and protect themselves from situations or people who cannot or will not bring them life. As humans we all have limits, recognizing what those are and establishing safeguards that keep us protected from harm is a normal part of relating with others. While boundaries are not cutting off everyone who makes us feel uncomfortable, you may have a need to cease contact with certain people in your life. As individuals, the limits we have look vastly different from person to person. Thus, it is crucial we establish personal boundaries that are based on our own unique needs. Discovering what those necessary boundaries are will require some mindfulness about how we feel in those stressful life moments. Healthy boundaries include: deciding to take a step back from a toxic relationship, not participating in a holiday at a certain family members house, or choosing to protect a specific night of the week for your family. The process of implementing boundaries is often stressful. It can be helpful to remember the following: You see a need for this boundary for a reason. Not everyone has to understand the need, they are not managing your stress around this situation. When you implement and respect your own boundaries, others are more likely to follow suit.

3. Schedule time for enjoyable things. The pressure is on to be at all the mandatory events and celebrations. The stress creeps in when we are not purposeful about taking time to engage in activities we enjoy. During the holidays it can be especially difficult to carve out time for ourselves. However, if we want to reduce our stress levels and increase the enjoyability of the season, doing so should be non-negotiable. Self-care through personal time and hand-picked activities can reset our stress levels and help us approach the must-dos with more patience and strength. A key here is knowing ahead of time what we really enjoy and how much time those activities will take so we can pencil them in accordingly. 30 minutes on a Thursday afternoon? Have your current book ready for reading. One hour on a Saturday? Enjoy that walk around your neighborhood. Remember that self-care is necessary, not selfish.
As with all matters of mental health, techniques to reduce stress are not a one-size fits all. However, these tips can be a great starting place in the journey toward a healthier mental state. I encourage you to take the time to be mindful, identify your triggers, recognize what your stress response looks like, and consider what healthy boundaries need to be in place in your life. Give yourself some grace, enjoy the delicious food, and have a Happy Holiday season!

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