How to Maintain Mental Health During the Holiday Season

The holidays can be a joy-filled season, but they can also be challenging and stressful, especially for those impacted by mental illness.

A recent NAMI study showed that 64% of people with mental illness report holidays make their conditions worse. “For many people the holiday season is not always the most wonderful time of the year,” said NAMI medical director Ken Duckworth. For individuals and families coping with mental health challenges, the holiday season can be a lonely or stressful time, filled with anxiety and/or depression.

If you’re living with a mental health condition, stress can also contribute to worsening symptoms. Examples: in schizophrenia, it can encourage hallucinations and delusions; in bipolar disorder, it can trigger episodes of both mania and depression.

Here are some suggestions for how you can reduce stress and maintain good mental health during the holiday season:

Accept your needs. Be kind to yourself! Put your own mental and physical well-being first. Recognize what your triggers are. Is shopping for holiday gifts too stressful for you? What is making you feel physically and mentally agitated? Once you know this, you can avoid them when it’s reasonable to, and to cope when you can’t.

Write a gratitude list and offer thanks. As we near the end of the year, it’s a good time to reflect back on what you are grateful for, then thank those who have supported you. 2020 has been an especially challenging year for us all. In the midst of it all, is there something or someone for whom you are grateful? (While you’re at it, share what you’re grateful for with us in our Community Voices quick survey!)

Manage your time and don’t try to do too much. Prioritizing your time and activities can help you use your time well. Making a day-to-day schedule helps ensure you don’t feel overwhelmed by everyday tasks and deadlines. It’s okay to say no to plans that don’t fit into your schedule or make you feel good.

Be realistic. Even pre-pandemic, the happy lives of the people shown in those holiday commercials were fictional. We all have struggles one time or another and it’s not realistic to expect otherwise. Sometimes, it’s simply not possible to find the perfect gift or have a peaceful time with family.

Set boundaries. Family dynamics can be complex. Acknowledge them and accept that you can only control your role. If you need to, find ways to limit your exposure.

Practice relaxation. Deep breathing, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation are good ways to calm yourself. Taking a break to refocus can have benefits beyond the immediate moment.

Exercise daily. Schedule time to walk outside, bike or join a dance class. Whatever you do, make sure it’s fun. Daily exercise naturally produces stress-relieving hormones in your body and improves your overall physical health. 

Set aside time for yourself. Schedule something that makes you feel good. It might be reading a book, going to the movies, getting a massage, listening to music you love, or taking your dog for a walk. It’s okay to prioritize alone time you need to recharge.

Eat well. With dinners, parties, and cookie trays at every turn, our eating habits are challenged during the holiday season. Try to maintain a healthy diet through it all. Eating unprocessed foods, like whole grains, vegetables, and fresh fruit is the foundation for a healthy body and mind. Eating well can also help stabilize your mood.

Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is known to adversely affect mental health and symptoms of some mental health conditions, like mania in bipolar disorder, can be triggered by getting too little sleep. More on getting good sleep.

Avoid alcohol and drugs. Drinking or taking drugs won’t actually reduce stress: in fact, they often worsen it. If you’re struggling with substance abuse, educate yourself and get help.

Spend time in nature. Studies show that time in nature reduces stress. (More on the mental health benefits of nature.) Need to break away from family during a holiday gathering? Talk a walk in a local park.

Volunteer. The act of volunteering can provide a great source of comfort. By helping people who are not as fortunate, you can also feel less lonely or isolated and more connected to your community. You can find out if there is a safe way to volunteer in your community.

Keep up or seek therapy. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, it may be time to share with your mental health professional. They can help you pinpoint specific events that trigger you and help you create an action plan to change them. If you’re already seeing a therapist, keep it up.

Find support. Whether it’s with friends, family, a counselor or a support group, airing out and talking can help. Consider attending one of our free support groups.

Get help in a crisis. If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health emergency or crisis, there is help. Call 911 for emergencies. For a crisis, the Crisis Hotline is always open at 800-854-7771, or you can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting NAMI to 741741. Click here for more crisis hotlines and hospitals.

Tips from NAMI WLA Team Members on Managing Stress During Gatherings

“Be gentle with yourself and your loved ones. Breathe. Take a break. Go for a walk. The dishes and whatever else is on your to-do list will be there tomorrow.”—Erin

“Discuss holiday plans in advance. It may be important to acknowledge the needs of all family members, preferences, and limits before a workable situation can be reached. Acknowledge any mixed feelings your loved one may have. Do not make assumptions about how they will feel or act. It is okay to feel ambivalent. Keep expectations realistic, especially regarding whether your loved one can tolerate a gathering, for how long, and what kind of participation he or she is capable of doing. Respect and support your loved one’s choices and decisions regarding whether they are comfortable participating and in what way. Be allowing.”—Sharon (more tips from Sharon here)

“Keep a list of specific activities and treats to look forward to. Mindfully enjoy those and disconnect from moments that frustrate you.”—Angelique

“Being prepared for changes in your routine is paramount in helping to reduce stress during the holiday season, as disruptions to our structure and routine can increase anxiety, stress, and other symptoms of mental health conditions. In addition to trying to be mindful of diet, exercise, sleep, and other important and healthy routines, planning ahead for these stressors is crucial. I suggest creating a “cope-ahead” plan. Think of it as planning ahead for things that may trigger stress, anxiety, or other negative emotions, and determine, in advance, how you will manage this. Maybe it will mean stepping away from the dinner table for a few minutes, or using an anxiety management technique such as box breathing. If possible, perhaps it means staying in a hotel or with friends instead of family. Or maybe giving yourself permission to leave a party early. Drive separately or take an Uber. You may even want to discuss your plan in advance with a family member, so if you do need to step away or leave early, it will be met with support and understanding instead of questions and concerns. Planning ahead for these kinds of stressors is one of the best ways to give yourself the freedom to take care of yourself, and may allow for a more stress-free, enjoyable holiday season!”—Adam

“Breathe deeply, float lightly, from moment to miracle moment. It is a miracle that our loved ones living with mental health conditions have made it to this point. Let us show our gratitude to have them in our lives.”—Jamie

“One big thing for me: know and respect your limits and your boundaries. If, like me, you only have a certain amount of energy to spend in gatherings, anticipate when your energy will be depleted and set boundaries for yourself. In other words, if you know you only have a good 2 hours before you become emotionally exhausted in social gatherings, plan an exit (if at all possible) after 2 hours (or whatever your limit is). If you can’t leave, see if there might be a quiet space to retreat to so you can recharge your social batteries. Most importantly, be compassionate with yourself.”—Jefferson

“Learn what your boundaries are and how to set those boundaries. It’s not easy, but it’s necessary. We can’t control other people, but we can always control how we respond. That is the only thing we have control over, actually. Remember, you are worthy of being respected. Just because it’s family doesn’t mean you are obligated to take any mistreatment. This is where boundaries come in. Also, learning positive coping skills are a must when dealing with stressful holiday gatherings. For example, breath-work, EFT tapping, meditation, lots of self compassion, and journaling are a few of my favorites.”—Brenda

“I like to give myself time-outs or breaks and do an activity that’s soothing to me. Usually when I feel myself getting stressed or anxious, I will excuse myself—maybe go on a walk or just to a different part of the house where I can be alone and journal all of my feelings out for ten minutes. This keeps me grounded, sane, and reminds me I have my own identity outside of these temporary holidays and they will end. This too shall pass!”—Caroline

“Holiday gatherings sometimes come with the pressure to compromise your mental well-being in the name of the holiday celebrations. Safeguarding my mental health and handling stress during this time, for me, involves a key strategy: setting and enforcing clear boundaries. I begin by taking a personal inventory, assessing the current state of my mental health, and determining the necessary steps to maintain or enhance it. The most crucial boundary I establish is internal—I consistently check-in with myself, gauging if I’m overextending myself, navigating situations that aren’t conducive to my well-being, or neglecting self-care. I prioritize honesty with myself and hold myself accountable for maintaining the balance between sacrificing and protecting my mental health. While holidays may introduce stress, maintaining these boundaries empowers me to stay in control of my mental well-being while honoring myself, others, and the spirit of holiday gatherings.”—Francesca

More on the subject

Mental Health and the Holiday Blues (NAMI)

Beat Back the Holiday Blues (NAMI)

9 Keys to a Resilient Holiday (Psychology Today)

A Path to Well-Being: Create Boundaries to Beat the Holiday Blues, with insight from NAMI’s Associate Medical Director Christine Crawford (Shondaland)