Manage the Holidays with a Mental Illness

How You Can Manage the Holidays with a Mental Illness

While some people can’t wait for the holiday season, claiming it is the best time of the year, those struggling with mental illness may find the holiday season particularly stressful and challenging. A study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) showed that 64% of people with a mental illness find that the holidays make their conditions worse. It is important to remember if you are struggling this holiday season, you are not alone. Below we have compiled a list of actions to help you manage the holidays with a mental illness. 


Be Realistic

First, it is important to be realistic about your holiday expectations. In order to avoid disappointment, try not to expect an ideal holiday. Despite what social media or movies may tell you, no one has a perfect holiday or perfect family. This is okay; life is not always ideal and the holidays are no different. Furthermore, acknowledge exactly how you are feeling, even if it’s feelings of sadness or grief. You cannot force yourself to be happy just because it is the holiday season. It is okay to take the time to cry or express your feelings in a healthy way, whereas bottling these feelings up will only make them harder to deal with in the long run. 


Don’t Abandon Healthy Habits or Routine

Change to your routine could be adding to your stress. If you enjoy going for a walk in the morning, or you always take your meetings at a specific time of day, try to keep it up throughout the holidays. Having a stable routine to fall back on may help to alleviate anxious feelings. Moreover, don’t let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence will only add to your discomfort. On the other hand, don’t unreasonably restrict yourself. Remember, everything in moderation, and simply try your best to keep abiding by your healthy habits. 

In addition, you can try to include regular physical activity in your daily routine to naturally boost endorphins. Perhaps you could eat a healthy snack before holiday meals so you don’t overindulge in sweets, or you could work on avoiding excessive tobacco, alcohol, and drug use. Oftentimes we may turn to food, alcohol, and/or drugs as a way to ease the holiday blues; however this is only a temporary solution that likely will increase your overall stress.

Set Aside Time For Yourself

If you are feeling overwhelmed, give yourself the permission to take some time for yourself. Taking a breather, away from others, may help you recharge. Find something you enjoy doing, that clears your mind, and turn to that activity to help you reduce stress in times of need. Focus on your breath and try to slow it down through deep, long breaths in order to restore your inner calm. 


Plan Ahead

Planning out specific days to shop, cook, bake, and connect with family and friends can help better prepare you for the holiday season. You could plan out your meal menus and create shopping lists ahead of time to prevent scrambling for last minute ingredients. Creating a sort of schedule for you and your family assures everyone is on the same page and allows you to mentally prepare for the events ahead. Additionally, making a plan for the holidays ahead of time assures you are not trying to fit in too much at once. Avoid overwhelming yourself by prioritizing your time and activities and saying no to the things that do not fit in your schedule.  


Stay Connected

If you are alone, or feeling lonely throughout the holidays, make an effort to connect with family and friends or seek out a welcoming community. Many communities have websites, online support groups, social media sites, or virtual events to connect you with other members. It’s always good to seek additional support when you need it. Whether this be a phone call, zoom date, or in person meeting, make the effort to not isolate yourself this season.


Learn to Say ‘No’ and Set Boundaries

Learn to say “no” to activities and invitations you’re not interested in partaking. Saying yes when you should say no may leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Understand your boundaries and stick to them for the sake of your mental health and for the health of your relationships. Generally, your family and friends will understand if you can’t participate in every activity or project. If you are feeling pressure from work to take on extra responsibilities, try talking to your colleagues about your boundaries and where you stand with them. If you simply can’t say no to extra work responsibilities, eliminate something else from your agenda to make up for lost time. 


How to Survive the Holidays with an Eating Disorder

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, the holidays may be particularly tough. The tactics listed above still apply, but there are also some unique tips for surviving the holidays with an eating disorder.

First and foremost, show yourself some compassion for how difficult the holidays can be for you. It is okay to struggle and feel overwhelmed, but also acknowledge your self-compassion. Ask for help; there is no need for you to struggle on your own. Perhaps a family member or friend could act as a designated support person during meal times. Seeing a therapist may also provide you with the support you need for your recovery during the holidays. 

When it comes to food, it’s important to have a coping strategy before attending holiday events. Work with your therapist to decide which foods you will eat and which “fear foods” you will try. Coping skills are more difficult to use when you are already in the midst of stress. Thus, having a coping strategy prior to big meals can help. Give yourself unconditional permission to eat all foods. When we restrict foods that we desire, it creates a deprivation cycle in our mind and body and we end up obsessively thinking about food and often will feel out of control. Remember, food is food- it is not “good” or “bad.”

Continually remind yourself that food provides nutritional value. Even more so, food connects us to our culture, heritage, tradition, and loved ones. Food is often a deep expression of love and human connection, thus it is important for our social and spiritual health. Despite what others may say, nothing about holiday foods are “unhealthy”. Challenge your inner food police and diet talk. The guilt, shame, and anxiety surrounding eating is usually more harmful to your health than the actual foods themselves. So, give yourself permission to feel satisfaction from eating and set healthy boundaries. For example, do not engage in diet talk or give yourself permission to leave a family function early if you feel overwhelmed. Most importantly, take the holidays one day at a time. Looking too far into the future can cause unnecessary stress. Instead, create short-term goals to make the most out of each gathering with loved ones. 


Ask for Help

If the holidays are still seeming unmanageable, it’s time to contact a professional for support. Do not let the holiday season get the best of your mental health. Instead, be proactive in seeking a therapist to guide you through the hardships. Meredith O’Brien and her team of affiliate mental health clinicians are dedicated to providing a safe, nurturing environment for clients. Each with a different area of expertise, the women at Meredith O’Brien and Affiliates strive to help their clients identify treatment goals, reduce life stressors, and learn effective coping skills to better manage their lives. Through both in-person counseling and telehealth therapy, Meredith and her team expand their reach and best support those in need. They specialize in treating depression, mood disorders, anxiety, panic disorders, self-esteem issues, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, and more. For more information, or to book an appointment, visit Meredith’s website


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