Managing Your Mental Health During the Holidays

Nov 18, 2021

By Joe Grasso, PhD, senior director of workforce mental health at Lyra

Over the  last two years, many of us have dealt with uncertainty, exhaustion, and disconnection. As the year winds down and the threat of the pandemic gradually wanes, many of us find ourselves once again trying to preserve our mental health during the holidays. So as 2021 comes to a close, how can you manage holiday stress

Here are 5 tips:

1. Make choices that align with your values

In a world that is filled with stressors both in and out of the workplace, you don’t always get to choose what happens to you or how you feel. That can be extra apparent during the holidays, whether you’re celebrating with family or friends or going through it alone. 

You can, however, choose what to do in response to events and feelings in a way that upholds your values. This year, examine your feelings and make choices that help you progress in alignment with your values, and use those values–rather than emotions–to guide your behavior. While you can’t control the outcome of an event,  you will ultimately feel proud of how you responded to it. 

With that in mind, remember that values are different from feelings. Values are aspects of life that you believe are important and influence the way you live as well as what you prioritize. Values can include community, love, and friendship–so, for example, you can act in a loving way, even if you’re managing holiday stress. When you start to feel overwhelmed, take a moment to remember how  you want to be–for instance, staying calm and compassionate with your family as they squabble over a meal, regardless of whether or not you feel calm and compassionate. This is a value-informed choice. 

2. Choose helpful beliefs 

Without clarity about the future, our minds fill in the blanks with worry, which is a natural response to the uncertainty that comes with lack of information.

Unfortunately, oftentimes worry doesn’t actually serve the worrier. For example, you may be worried about your vaccinated kids contracting COVID on the flight back from college over Thanksgiving, but have discussed the risk with them and decided as a family that you’re comfortable taking the chance. Worrying about this situation is a perfectly natural response, but it doesn’t actually change their risk of infection. That’s why it’s so important to tune into what’s going through your mind when anxiety spikes, and notice the thoughts going through your head.

Before you let yourself run away with worry and start treating those thoughts as facts, slow down and ask yourself three important questions:

  • What is the evidence for and against your worry?
  • What is the utility of your worry?
  • What’s an alternative, more productive thought?

Answering these questions can help you stay grounded in the moment and enable you to reframe your worries into helpful thoughts. If, for example, your worry is that this winter you’ll be stuck inside and surrounded by the gloom and doom of the cold months, answering the questions above can empower you to shift the thought into something more helpful. You may tell yourself, “This winter might be more challenging, but it’s temporary and I plan to get outside when weather allows, and find ways to stay entertained and connected to others.”

3. Practice acceptance 

When we face an unwanted situation or behavior–for example, relatives getting upset that you won’t visit for the holidays because they’re not vaccinated against COVID-19– we often experience thoughts like, “This wasn’t supposed to happen,” or “I shouldn’t have to deal with yet another thing.” We tend to wish others would behave differently in ways that serve us. 

The fact is, we can’t control the actions of others, and the best you can do when presented with situations that make it difficult to manage your mental health during the holidays is to take a step back, acknowledge the circumstances for what they are, and make choices based on reality and your values. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What can you control about this situation?
  • What can you do to feel better? 

Keep in mind that you can’t stop your emotions from happening—nor should you want to, because emotions reflect the reality of your internal state and serve adaptive purposes. What you can do is control how you respond to your feelings. Remember that shame over your emotions causes unnecessary suffering–while acceptance allows emotions to ebb and flow, stopping the struggle. 

Consider these ways to practice acceptance through mindfulness: 

  • Focus your attention on the here and now
  • Notice your emotions and how they feel within your body 
  • Observe a situation without trying to change anything 
  • Remember that feelings are not “right” or “wrong,” they just are

4. Put your wellness first

The more life gets hectic, the more we need to prioritize self-care. Holiday seasons, which can disrupt routine and affect our  mood, make it difficult to take care of ourselves. 

Self-care is characterized by a combination of behaviors that can enhance your energy and motivation, and improve your resilience in the face of stress. For example, if you know that your 10-minute morning coffee routine is going to help you muster the energy to get the house ready to host Thanksgiving dinner, it counts as a self-care practice.

Self-care is not self-indulgence or extravagance–instead, it’s about doing the basic but critical things to support your mental and physical wellness. Some of these basics can include:

  • Setting boundaries
  • Taking breaks (including paid time off)
  • Exercise
  • Engaging in hobbies and interests 
  • Taking care of your nutrition 
  • Getting the right amount and quality of sleep 
  • Socializing 

It’s important to stick to a self-care routine, even though managing holiday stress can throw these practices off. Make sure to set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely (SMART) goals to bolster your self-care. Ask yourself the following questions when it comes to your self-care goals:

  • What exact action will you take to take care of yourself?
  • What accountability metric will you use to measure your self-care outcomes?
  • What is a reasonable self-care goal?
  • What value does it tie into?
  • What’s the time frame of the action? 

An example of a SMART self-care goal is: “I’m going to run for at least 20 minutes between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays each week to align with my fitness value.”

5. Engage on your terms 

It’s important to communicate with family members in a realistic and achievable, but unharmful way. When doing so, don’t feel pressured to compare your reality to fantasies like Hallmark movies, your social media feed, or holiday greeting cards. If you’re tense about the potential conflict that could arise from engaging with family and friends, keep in mind the following steps:

  • Seek mutual understanding, not agreement.
  • Reassure with your intentions: For example, if you feel pressured by your parents to visit despite the possible COVID risk, remind them that you love them and want to spend time with them, but  want to do it safely. 
  • Ask permission to share counter-information: If you find yourself in conflict with a family member over their anxiety around the COVID vaccine, for example, ask, “Can I share some information with you that I find credible and useful?” 
  • Validate the other person’s emotions.
  • Give the benefit of the doubt: For example, is the “selfish” or “ignorant” behavior of someone you’re in conflict with actually a reflection of their loneliness or fear? Lead your communication with empathy first. 
  • Stay firm on your boundaries and avoid putting others’ preferences above your needs: This can mean saying something like, “I appreciate that you feel differently, but this is the decision I’ve made for myself.” 

Staying mentally healthy over the holidays can be challenging, especially after the last two years that we’ve all experienced. Remember not to let the idea of perfection get in the way of a generally good experience. The holidays don’t have to be too stressful or pressure-filled, and can even be fun if you keep these  tips for managing your mental health during the holidays in mind.

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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe Grasso, PhD, is the Senior Director of Workforce Health at Lyra Health and a clinical psychologist by training. Dr. Grasso consults with employers on mental health initiatives in the workplace and leads the development and delivery of Lyra’s educational content. He also specializes in developing, evaluating, and disseminating evidence-based behavioral health care programs.