Is Mental Health on Your Wishlist? 9 Strategies for Keeping your Sanity this Holiday Season

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…except for all the shopping, parties, coordinating family events, dealing with personal questions, uncomfortable conversations, resentments getting triggered left and right, awkward moments, grief, crying kids, struggling with financial choices, dirty houses, to do lists a mile long, and being completely exhausted.  Even with all these stresses, the holidays can still be filled with good memories and wonderful experiences, but you have to make sure you are taking care of your mental health to achieve that. 

Let’s face it, there are always going to be a ton of stressors popping up around the holidays.  The ones I mentioned above are just scratching the surface of what my clients are telling me about as December 25th approaches.  The holidays bring up stuff for people, they just do.  When emotions are high and we add external stressors, like shopping lists and coordinative events with your in-laws, disasters can arise if we let them.  The best way to combat bad decisions and getting overwhelmed is to take care of yourself.  Are you even on your own to-do list? 

So here’s 10 ways to make yourself a priority and attend to your mental health during the holidays:

1. Take Care of Basic Needs (Food, Water, and Sleep)

I can feel the eye rolls some of you are giving me through the computer, but I can’t emphasize this enough.  You have to consciously take care of your basic needs because that’s typically one of the first things to fall to the bottom of the list.  You cannot function and give your kid a perfect holiday if you fall apart physically.  Eating, drinking water, and sleeping are really important to your overall functioning, so make sure you are doing these things. 

2.  Think About Your Priorities

Another important one.  Make a list of your priorities this holiday season, and think of the bigger picture.  If you want to have a great time with family, then every decision you make should be around that priority.  If cleaning your baseboards is on your to-do list, but doesn’t lead to you having quality time with your family, then you have a decision about whether or not that is a priority.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed with 5,000 things to do and we often get caught up in that instead of focusing on what is meaningful.  Let’s shift that thinking so that you can actually enjoy yourself and your family. 

3.  Check In with Yourself Often

We are moving at warp speed during the holidays, both leading up to and the day of.  There are so many tasks that we are trying to complete and we forget about ourselves.  The danger of that is there are still needs and emotions taking place, whether we recognize them or not.  Depriving or distracting ourselves from paying attention to those signals is only going to lead to bigger problems.  Those emotions and needs will come out, and they’ll resurface in another (probably not so healthy) way.  Check in with yourself more often than you think you should. 

4.  Write Your “Shoulds” on a Post-It Note and Throw Them Away

I talk about “shoulds” a lot.  Shoulding yourself is when you are telling yourself you “should” do something as opposed to doing what you “want” to do.  “I should make every dish from scratch” “I should get so-and-so an extra present this year” “I should be excited to see so-and-so” “I should want everything to be perfect.”  Shoulds really just get in our way, which I talk about in more detail here.  Notice when you’re shoulding yourself, write each one down on a post-it, and throw it away. 

5.  Talk to Your Partner

And by this I mean, really talk to your partner.  Break it all down for them about how you are feeling, everything on the list to be done, what your vision is for the holiday, what the values are for your family and relationship, and what things are getting to you.  Your partner cannot read your mind, so you have to be clear about what’s going on.  Also, most couples take a divide and conquer approach to getting everything prepped and done, which can be effective but also leads to miscommunications and resentments.  Take a few extra moments to have a real conversation with your partner. 

6.  Say No

I know for many of you, this will be difficult.  It’s hard to say no, it can feel impossible.  You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings and you want to see as many people as possible during this time of the year.  I suggest working backwards- you’ve already defined your priorities for the holiday, so each time you are presented with an invitation or opportunity, think about whether attending will serve you and help you reach your goals.  If it doesn’t, politely say no.

7.  Recharge your Batteries

Most people aren’t very good at this.  In the therapy world we call it self-care.  It’s the idea that if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of anyone else.  You know how when you go on an airplane they instruct you to put on your oxygen mask before you put your child’s on?  It’s that same concept.  Self-care looks different for everyone, so you’ll have to figure out what works for you, but it’s super important during the holidays that you find some way to recharge or you won’t be able to do anything. 

8.  Journal

There’s some science to back up why journaling is effective in managing emotions and overall stress.  Let me geek out for a moment.  Our brain is divided into two hemispheres – the left more logical side which also controls language, and the right more emotional side which is responsible for us having an experience.  Our brain works best when the two sides are working together (this is called integration) because the brain then draws on more resources.  Journaling helps to integrate the two sides by putting an emotional experience (using the right brain) down on paper (using the left brain).  Journaling can look any way you want it to, it doesn’t have to be structured or it can just be doodles.  You can also get as creative as you want, but putting a pen to paper in some way has been shown to be effective. 

9.  Give Yourself the Gift of Permission Slips

If you want to get fancy, you can have permission slips made online and personalized, but Post-It notes work well to.  Carry your permission slips with you, and when you start to feel perfectionist tendencies, “shoulds”, judgments about yourself, struggles with decision making, overwhelmed, or guilty, get out your slips and give yourself permission to (fill in the blank).  Maybe you need a reminder that you don’t have to be perfect all the time, or that it’s ok and human to get frustrated with your toddler.  Maybe you need permission to take a half an hour to soak in the tub.  We typically know somewhere in our minds that we need something, but we talk ourselves out of it for a variety of reasons.  Give yourself permission to help yourself feel better.  And if you can’t yet, allow me to give you that permission. 

What on the list appeals to you, and what other strategies have you found helpful in managing stress around the holidays?  Tell me in the comment section so we can learn from each other. 

I am a Marriage and Family Therapist located in the Clear Lake area of Houston, Tx.  I specialize in couples therapy, infertility counseling, postpartum mood and anxiety disorders, and the transition to parenthood.  I offer free 20 minute consultations so that you can voice any questions or concerns and learn how therapy can help.  Call me at (832) 827-3288, looking forward to hearing from you. 

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