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Mental Health and the Holidays

Written by Darren Aschacher,
Instructor & Workplace Mental Health Trainer, Edgar Psychological

The holidays are upon us once again and along with gifts, celebration and cheer comes something else that we all tend to feel: stress.

For some of us, the expectations we put on ourselves as the year comes to a close are extraordinary, as if the rest of the year wasn’t stressful enough! Now there are enormous pressures from long to-do lists, overblown gift budgets and busy social calendars.

For others, the holidays can become a time of isolation and loneliness as we miss family and friends who have passed on from our lives. Also, the unpleasant realities of divorce or family disagreements are illuminated during this time of year.

As the stressors rise so does the risk of developing symptoms of depression, anxiety and substance use disorders.

With this in mind, let’s work on strengthening our protective factors:

1. Rest, recover and restore.

There is strong connection between the sleep we get and our mental health. Over the holidays we tend to have more late nights as we attend parties and stay up late visiting. We add alcohol into the mix, which further prevents us from getting good, restorative REM sleep. This causes us to run on a sleep deficit where we can begin to experience low moods, less patience and increased reactivity in our relationships.

As well as disrupting sleep, alcohol is a depressant and over-drinking can have very negative psychological effects in addition to the awful physical hangover. If this happens to you then you will see huge payoffs by moderating the amount you drink. We also tend to give up on our exercise routine during this season, even though for many of us, exercise is one of the most important tool we have to maintain good mental health.

When we throw all of our healthy habits out the window during the holidays, we are left with the difficult after effects. Making a pros and cons list to evaluate risky vs rewarding behavior is can be motivating and helpful.

2. Set realistic expectations.

In today’s social media landscape, Instagram continues to enlighten us to how “perfect” everyone’s life is. Filtered photos of holiday crafts, gourmet meals and signature cocktails take over our screens and can bring certain emotions for us. The feeling of being overwhelmed with all that needs to be done, or feelings of envy or inadequacy as we compare our lives with those that are portrayed so perfectly on social media.

It’s important to remember that Christmas doesn’t have to be perfect to be worthwhile and good. Surrounding ourselves with the ones we love is what it’s all about, even if it doesn’t make for a snazzy photo to post.

3. Find the right balance when it comes to social interaction and setting boundaries.

The single most important thing a human being requires to feel safe and at peace in this world is strong connection with others. The ancient wiring in our brain produces an array of positive emotions when we are nestled safe in our social group.

The reverse of that is that when we find ourselves alone and isolated during the holiday season, we dip into a well of very negative emotions. Sadness, despair, anger, shame, guilt, regret are just a few. Let’s not let this happen this year. If you are finding yourself alone this season and are envisioning a sad and lonely few weeks, try and practice Opposite Action. Put some social dates into the calendar, sign up for a volunteer opportunity to help others less fortunate, attend a holiday concert or call up an old friend and rebuild that connection. By going all in and participating this season, you are increasing the opportunity for meaningful interpersonal connections.

If you happen to find yourself on the other the other end of the scale and you simply have too many social events, then the added stress of these demands can move us out of good mental health. Learn to graciously say “no” and put boundaries around your quality time to ensure you have the holiday season that is best for you, and not everyone else.

The more we practice putting our own mental health first, the easier it becomes and the more payoffs we enjoy.

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