The season of “bright and merry” is almost upon us. But for those struggling with conditions like depression, trauma, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), this time of year can come with an ominous feeling that dark days are ahead.
The “most wonderful time of the year” can paradoxically be the most challenging for those managing mental health issues: in fact, 64% of people with mental illness report worsening symptoms during this time (NAMI). Feelings of grief, loneliness, and disconnection intensify amid the cheerful holiday hype. For those who have lost loved ones, are estranged from family, or live alone, the holidays can be especially difficult.
Seasonal affective disorder also tends to peak during these months. SAD is a type of depression that intensifies during specific seasons. It’s characterized by feelings of sadness, isolation, and lethargy as sunlight decreases. Far from the cheery holiday advertisements, many feel an impending cloud looming as the calendar creeps closer to winter.
If you struggle with mental health during the holidays, you aren’t alone in this experience. The good news is that while this season poses unique challenges, there are ways to cope with and manage the difficulties. With the right intentions and support strategies, you can emerge on the other side of the holidays with your well-being intact.
Navigating the Holidays with Mental Illness
Coping with seasonal depression and other mental health issues looks different for everyone. Reflect on your individual triggers and needs during the holidays. Here are some self-care tips that may help:
Set boundaries. Give yourself permission to say no to holiday traditions or family expectations that cause extra stress. Whether it’s an hour visit instead of an overnight stay, or skipping the crowded New Year’s Eve party, setting boundaries can help limit holiday triggers.
Be aware of unhealthy coping mechanisms. The stress and difficult emotions brought on by the holidays can cause some to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like maladaptive substance use, shopping splurges, or social isolation. These quick fixes may provide temporary relief, but they can harm our well-being over time. Pay attention to how you cope with stress, and don’t be afraid to ask for help—your well-being is the priority.
Check in with your support system. If you take medication or see a therapist, this is a good time to schedule a visit. Work with your psychiatrist to determine if your medication is working properly, and meet with your therapist to determine your needs and boundaries. Don’t be afraid to ask loved ones for extra support if you find yourself struggling.
Don’t fall for toxic positivity. It’s understandable to feel sad amid the cheer. Ignoring difficult emotions often makes them worse. Acknowledge your feelings without judgment and take time to process them.
Try something new. If the holidays bring out feelings of loneliness and isolation, consider volunteering with a local charity, fostering a pet, or attending community events to make new connections. You may find others who are facing similar struggles.
With the right boundaries, support, and self-care, you can navigate this season with resilience.
Finding Hope and Meaning in the Holidays
Although the holiday season can magnify mental health struggles, there are still ways to find meaning, connection, and hope during this time.
If seasonal displays and images of smiling families only make you feel more out of place, starting new traditions that resonate with you, whether it’s a winter hike on Christmas morning or writing letters to loved ones, can help you feel more connected. Sharing your experience with trusted friends or support groups can also ease feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Treat yourself gently, without judgment or unrealistic expectations. It’s normal and perfectly okay to struggle sometimes during the holidays. Focus on small sources of joy and meaning rather than forcing yourself to feel merry.
Reflect on your core values and what is meaningful to you beyond society’s emphasis on consumerism and perfectionism. Allow yourself to grieve, reflect, and take space. With an open heart, there are always glimpses of hope, even during the darkest of times.
While the holidays present unique challenges for mental health, with the right supports, mindset, and self-compassion, you have the resilience to not only get through this season but also grow from it.