Stress can throw anyone off-kilter. But when you have a mental illness, you might be extra vulnerable. “The demands, pressures and expectations of the holidays can be felt more intensely by people with mental illness,” according to Darlene Mininni, PhD, MPH, author of The Emotional Toolkit, who works privately with individuals and speaks nationally on topics related to emotional health and well-being.
“Having a mental illness is the same as having any chronic illness,” said Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and founder of Explore What’s Next, a comprehensive psychotherapy practice. So it helps to have a plan and take good care of yourself.
Here are nine tips for coping with the holidays.
1. Make yourself a priority.
During the holidays, as we’re hosting, shopping, cooking, cleaning, attending get-togethers and checking off other tasks on our to-do lists, self-care often takes a backseat. But “your health comes first,” said Dr. Aletta, who’s also a Psych Central contributor.
This also means maintaining your routine as much as possible. “Make sure you get the sleep you need and keep up any activities that make you feel good such as exercise or time with friends,” Dr. Mininni said.
2. Avoid feeling guilty.
During the holiday season, many of us want to be many things to our loved ones. And we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. So we put pressure on ourselves along with a hefty side of stress-inducing guilt.
Remind yourself that pleasing everyone is unrealistic. “Set aside the guilt, push the pause button on it or throw it out completely if you can. Put it on a shelf, in a box, labeled ‘I will talk about this later with my therapist,’” Dr. Aletta said.
3. Keep connected.
If you aren’t feeling well, you might be tempted to isolate yourself. But this will just make you feel worse, Dr. Mininni said. “If you’re not in the holiday mood, consider spending time with a friend or calling a person who cares about you. Connecting with just one person can make you 10 times less likely to get depressed,” she said.
4. Tune into your feelings—and be honest.
You may love your family very much. But if you’re honest with yourself, you might realize that being with them also can be stressful. Coming to this realization, while uncomfortable, will help you figure out better ways to cope, Dr. Aletta said.
5. Identify what you really want to do.
For instance, you might want to spend the entire day with your family or just go for dessert, Dr. Aletta said. “Once being with [your family] is a choice instead of a gun-to-your-head obligation maybe you can relax a bit.”
6. Plan a timeout when stress strikes.
Dr. Aletta encouraged readers to give themselves permission to leave a stressful situation. Your “strategic retreat” may be anything from walking the dog to getting tea at a café to listening to soothing music to having a good cry, she said. Then decide whether the healthier choice is to return to the get-together or go home.
7. Buddy up.
“Have a confidant close by or on speed dial: a friend, cousin, sister or niece who ‘gets it,’” Dr. Aletta said. In fact, “She may need your help to get through as much as you need hers,” she added.
8. Avoid alcohol.
Alcohol can interfere with medication and exacerbate symptoms. It also might spark an altercation or two. “You do not want to be disinhibited when there is even one person in the room who can hit your buttons with an emotional Taser,” Dr. Aletta said. On a similar note, she suggested that readers avoid confronting people in general.
9. Laugh—a lot.
“See the humor wherever and whenever you can,” Dr. Aletta said. That’s because humor heals. (If you’d like some proof, Therese Borchard’s piece on humor is a must-read.)