Holiday magic. Although it’s real for some, the magic can also be a thin veneer, hiding challenging emotions that can come along with the celebrations — in fact, 52% of Canadians report feelings of anxiety, depression and isolation during the holiday season. And, if you’re already depressed or experiencing anxiety, the holidays can make things even worse.
Here are five ways that the holidays can be just too much, adding stress and putting strain on our mental health. Do you see yourself in these? If so, here are some tips to help preserve your peace of mind.
1. (Too) great expectations
The image of the “perfect holiday” permeates the mainstream culture. We know exactly how it’s supposed to go. We feel obligations. We compare ourselves to it. Are we happy enough? Are we doing it right? The pressure for perfection maybe even greater after last year’s restrictions on gathering caused conflict, disappointment and forced isolation. Are we hoping and expecting “wow” this year?
Maybe the holidays aren’t part of your cultural tradition, but you feel pressure to celebrate them. Or you feel excluded if you don’t. Or maybe they’re part of a tradition you reject. If so,
- Ignore judgments of “bah humbug” – you are not obliged to celebrate the holidays.
- Recognize if you feel oppressed by your own traditions. If you do, it’s time to take the space and time to reinvent. Maybe that means saying no (“I can’t come this year”), or setting other boundaries (“I’m coming for dinner but I can’t stay the night”).
- Don’t be ruled by what’s gone on in the past. They’re your holidays and you can take them back.
- Ask yourself what you love about the holidays. What do you dislike, or even hate? Now choose to do what you love! Don’t let your—or anybody else’s—traditions dictate how and if you celebrate.
2. Merriment to the max
Over-eating. Over-drinking. Over-spending. General over-indulgence. It seems the holidays go hand and hand with them. This compulsory consumerism and mandatory merriment can have a damaging effect on your mental health, especially if you struggle with your finances. Consumption comes at a price that not everyone can afford. If so,
- Know that you don’t have to buy things to show others that you care.
- There are gift exchange ideas that cut down on consumerism, without skimping on generosity or giving. Here are a few, or 44: https://allgiftsconsidered.com/family-gift-exchange-ideas/
- Stay on top of what you’re spending by budgeting. A budget template can help you do that. Here is one, but there are many on the Internet. https://templates.office.com/en-ca/holiday-budget-planner-tm16410204
- Remind yourself of pitfalls or triggers when it comes to overindulging. It might feel good in the moment, or help you deal with holiday stress, but may not have positive effects on your mental health the next morning or the next month when bills are due.
- Don’t lose sight of your needs for exercise and sleep.
3. Your plate overfloweth
You may be hosting a gathering this year for the first (or fiftieth) time. Maybe you feel responsible for other people’s entertainment and enjoyment. And maybe, you feel like it’s your job to please everyone and make sure others are having enough fun and enjoying their holidays, too. That’s a lot of pressure. If so,
- Delegate: if you feel it’s your job alone to make things perfect, you can ask others to help out. It’s their holiday too!
- Take a break from hosting or retire altogether. Ask someone else to host this year.
- Put safety first. Not everyone will share the same opinions on vaccines, and this could cause conflict this year, which is stressful to manage. Remember that if it’s your home or your event, you get to set the ground rules.
- Head conflict off at the pass. If you know there are certain topics that will set people off, be kind and clear about boundaries and expectations. For instance, put your expectations about vaccine status or mask requirements in your invitation email, or specify a time to talk things through in advance.
4. Too much togetherness
Sometimes our holiday traditions are intensely social. Parties, get-togethers and family dinners can create relationship dynamics that are rife with discomfort, and even conflict. Tensions can run high. Because our holiday traditions can date back to childhood, we may be called on to play roles we aren’t comfortable playing any longer. If so,
- Remember that only you can choose what makes you happy.
- If you accept the invitation but find that you’re feeling overwhelmed while you’re there, plan to take time out by finding a quiet place to take a break, calling a friend or taking a walk.
- If you don’t want to stay, you’re allowed to leave. Hint: arrange your own transportation so you can come and go at will.
- If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to. Give yourself permission to do what’s best for you.
5. Feeling left out in the cold
More than one in 10 Canadians often or always feel lonely. And, in those who experience loneliness, half have poorer mental health overall. Your connection to others and your community are key protective factors for everyone’s mental health, so loneliness is something to pay attention to. The holidays can be especially hard if you feel lonely.
There are many reasons you might be alone during the holidays. Sometimes it’s your choice, and sometimes it just isn’t. Like if you’ve lost someone, moved away or grown apart. If you are already feeling isolated socially, or have a social or other anxiety disorder, being alone during the holidays can make things worse. If so,
- Do something special for yourself: cook yourself your favourite foods, go to a movie (the cinemas don’t close but keep your mask on), do a holiday project.
- Volunteer. By helping others, you also boost your own mental health and have a chance to connect with other people. You can help out at a foodbank, serve holiday dinner at a community meal or offer to get groceries or spend some time with someone who’s alone and doesn’t want to be,
- Reach out to others who are also looking for connection: there are whole groups of people—in person and online—who are also looking for community.
- Take a page out of last year’s “distanced” holidays and plan remote festivities: share photos, emails, videos over video calls. Set up a Zoom event or Facebook group.
- Go “old school” and write letters and holiday cards with invitations to connect by phone.
If you are struggling, know that there is help and hope.
If, despite your best efforts, you feel overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety or sadness, negative feelings are persistent or get in the way of your daily life, you should reach out for mental health support:
- If you just want to talk to someone, there are “warm lines” for you to do just that: https://wellnesstogether.ca/en-CA/peer-support-warmline
- If you’re a young person, try the youth peer-to-peer online community:
- Please contact your local CMHA or visit the Government of Canada’s Wellness Together portal.
- If you are thinking of suicide, please call 1-833-456-4566 toll free in Canada (1-866-277-3553 in Quebec) or dial 911.
Holidays aren’t magical for everyone. That’s because the “most wonderful time of the year” can be fraught with challenges and situations that affect our mental health. Be prepared. If you’re dreading the holidays, don’t let them just happen to you. Get out in front of them. And take good care.