It's commonly referred to as "the most wonderful time of the year," but the holiday season can be a trying, stressful time for those navigating conditions like depression and anxiety. While others happily move from one party or family tradition to the next, you might feel overwhelmed and want to retreat until the season has passed. But experts say there's a happy medium to be found, and if you follow these steps, you can enjoy this time of year while still shielding yourself from the toll it can take.
1. Set Boundaries and Plan Ahead
The holiday season is a marathon, not a sprint, so it's important to set boundaries and stick to them. For example, family gatherings can be challenging even if everyone involved has good intentions. "Often old labels and actions resurface, creating uncomfortable moments of tension," Jeff Nalin, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of the Paradigm Malibu Treatment Center, told POPSUGAR. "When this happens, a well-thought-out strategy will help prevent the problem from escalating."
Dr. Nalin recommends making a list of possible scenarios and their potential solutions so you have more control. If the situation becomes too stressful, it's best to physically remove yourself or take a break. "Taking a time out, going for a walk, or seeking the comfort of a support system will help clear your head and reduce your stress," he said.
2. Maintain a Healthy Routine
Gail Saltz, MD, a Manhattan-based psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College, emphasized the importance of keeping a healthy routine throughout the holidays. "Try to get a normal seven to nine hours of sleep," she said. During the holidays, we're often surrounded by alcohol and unhealthy foods, so Dr. Saltz recommends being mindful of what you're eating and drinking. "Limit yourself to one drink," she suggested. If you already have a therapist, make sure to prioritize your appointments.
If you struggle with your mental health and don't have a therapist, Dr. Saltz recommends finding someone as soon as possible. "If you're struggling, make sure that you're plugged in with a professional before December 23, when a lot of therapists are out of the office or on vacation," she said. Working with a therapist before the holiday season is in full swing also gives you more time to strategize and discuss coping mechanisms for potentially stressful situations.
3. Don't Isolate Yourself
"Those of us who have lost a loved one or don't have any friends to spend time with may feel like isolating ourselves to cope with our feelings of sadness," Dr. Nalin said. This is a natural reaction, but being reclusive will only serve to reinforce those negative emotions. If you're feeling lonely, he recommends donating your time to those in need.
"Volunteering and helping others gives us a good dose of endorphins, the same feel-good hormones that are released during a good workout," Dr. Nalin explained. "So, when the lonely feelings start trickling in, head out and seek the fulfillment and joy that come from kindness and generosity."
4. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness exercises can help keep you grounded throughout the season. "When we become aware of our mind and body, we can learn to develop an inner strength and an ability to banish unhealthy thought patterns," Dr. Nalin told POPSUGAR. Practicing mindful meditation allows you to stay in the present moment and helps you deal more effectively with current and future periods of stress. He recommends adding a simple, 10-minute meditation to your morning routine — try one of the guided meditations in this list.