By Jackie Menjivar
A version of this article was originally posted in the IDONTMIND Journal.
Despite all the films, music, and greeting cards telling you otherwise, no, the holidays do not have to be the “happiest time of the year.” In fact, it’s really common for people to feel down around the holidays. The season can stir up feelings of sadness, melancholy, loneliness, anxiety, and more.
You don’t necessarily have to have painful experiences with the holidays to feel triggered by them. Sometimes it can be more about what they represent: community, family, food, religion, etc. That’s why it’s so important to protect your mental health amid all the celebration. Here’s how you can do it.
Know your triggers
Make a list of things you might run into that bring up negative feelings or behaviors. That can include alcohol, food, traditions, people, and sensory experiences. Acknowledging what’s painful or difficult for you can help you plan ahead. Come up with strategies for dealing with triggers if they come up.
- Take a 15-minute break in the backyard or an empty room.
- Bring my headphones and pop them in if I need a distraction.
- Use my voice to say when I’m uncomfortable.
- Walk away from a conversation or person.
Going into an event or gathering with a plan can make you feel way more in control. Even if you’re spending the holidays alone, having a plan for how you’ll spend the actual day(s) will keep you from getting stuck.
What will you do before?
- Meet your basic needs. You’ll feel way better physically and mentally if you get enough sleep, food, water, and exercise ahead of time.
- Do what makes you feel good. Give yourself a confidence boost by picking out a special outfit, practicing positive self-talk, or getting some alone time to charge up your social battery.
What will you do during?
- Plan around triggers. What are the specific things you’ll say or do if you run into one of your triggers? For example, you can practice what you’ll tell someone if they offer you alcohol.
- Find the good stuff. Remember the things that you do enjoy. Think about the people you’ll talk to or the activities you’ll do on the holiday or at the event.
- Have an emergency plan. Have a plan for if things get tough. Come prepared with grounding techniques, breathing exercises, and a way to get out of the situation.
What will you do after?
- Practice self-care. Think about what you’ll need to do to recharge and decompress.
- Incentivize yourself. Plan to do something you enjoy after your event. That way, you have something to look forward to when you make it through.
Setting boundaries means that you’re sticking up for yourself, your needs, and your mental health. You might decide to limit your interaction with certain relatives or set a time limit for family gatherings. Or maybe you know which subjects are off-limits or what kinds of comments you won’t tolerate. You may even decide not to attend any holiday events at all. Remember that it’s not selfish to prioritize yourself and your well-being.
If you’re not sure about what you can handle, you don’t have to make any commitments. Talk to the host so that you aren’t pressured to accept or decline an invitation in advance.
“I hope you understand that the holidays can be really tough for me, and I’m trying to take care of myself by not planning too much. Is it okay if I get back to you on whether I’m feeling up to it the day of?”
Tap into your support system
Surround yourself with the people who can help you get through the day. Bring a friend to your family dinner, or bring a sober companion to the holiday party. It’s also helpful to pick out “safe” relatives — those who can support and validate you. If the guest list is limited, have a friend on call who you can reach out to for some strength.
Remember to ask for what you need from people. If you’re experiencing grief or working through trauma, people may not know whether you need their support or want to be left alone during the holidays.
Make new traditions
You don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done, especially if they’re connected to negative memories or feelings. Create your own personal holiday traditions. They can be based on old traditions or on something that’s important to you now. Make a yearly donation to an organization that matters to you, or gather with your chosen family. Just make sure it makes you feel joyful.
There’s also a lot of pressure to spend the holidays with family and friends, but there are plenty of other ways to connect. You can volunteer, attend community events, or find virtual gathering spaces. Or just spend the day by yourself!
Honor your experiences
If you’ve lost a loved one, you can still honor their memory during the holidays. Cook their favorite dish, make a donation in their name, or share your memories of them with other people.
And if you’ve experienced a trauma related to family or the holidays, don’t try to suppress it. Journal about what you went through and how it’s making you feel now. Comfort yourself with kind words. Above all, give yourself permission to feel whatever comes up. The anger, guilt, shame, or fear will pass, and once it does, you’ll feel so much lighter and ready to tackle the day.
Like with anything else, your feelings about the holidays don’t have to be black and white. There’s room for the good, the bad, and the…complicated. Just know that, however you feel, you are not alone.
(Here are some mental health resources if you need a little extra support this holiday season.)