Staying Mentally Healthy in the Holiday Season

This blog first appeared on the PSYowa blog, a public education blog that can be shared on social media or emailed to friends and family. The link for the public post is found here

headshot of Dr. Amanda JohnsonHolidays are often sources of joy, connection, and celebration for people all over the world. However, we sometimes forget that they can also be reminders of painful losses and loneliness. Even before the pandemic the holidays were often sources of stress for many of us. With the pandemic impacting all of our lives in many ways, holidays haven’t looked like they used to. We have had to connect with loved ones through nursing homes and hospital windows, we’ve had to Facetime friends and family when we normally would’ve joined in person, and many of us have lost friends and family members who have been an important part of our holidays. For some, the holidays will continue to be very different this year. Dealing with this ongoing disruption in the traditions we hold dear can lead to struggles with our well-being and our mental health. 

 Others may be dealing with a different sort of difficulty. For many, it will be the first time they are rejoining their families for a more traditional holiday celebration. With that comes great joy but also challenges that come with adjusting to spending time with people who you haven’t seen in quite a while. Additionally, families are often made up of individuals with different beliefs, political parties, and viewpoints on world events. This can create potential for conflict and uncomfortable situations often made more severe by holiday stress and large family gatherings. 

Holidays and Mental Health 

Whether you are continuing to deal with a holiday season that looks very different from the one you hoped for or you are dealing with anxieties related to spending time with your family for the first time in a long time, you may be experiencing new or increasing mental health symptoms. Many people have always struggled with “holiday blues” but now more than ever it is something to be aware of for yourself and for those you love. Some things to watch out for include: 

  • Changes in appetite or weight 
  • Changes in sleep patterns 
  • Depressed or irritable mood
  •  Difficulty concentrating 
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt 
  • Feeling more tired than usual 
  • Feeling tense, worried, or anxious 
  • Loss of pleasure in doing things you used to enjoy 

Get Help 

If you or someone you care about is experiencing these or any other difficulties with mental health there is help available. Some good resources include: 

  • Call your therapist, psychiatric provider, or primary care doctor 
  • Iowa Psychological Association Psychologist Finder
  •  Iowa Warm Line (844) 775-WARM (9276)
  • Your Life Iowa Crisis Line (855) 581-8111 
  • United Way’s Help Line: Dial 211 
  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255) 
  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357) 

Coping Strategies 

In addition to reaching out for help when you need it, there are some things you can do to make the holidays less difficult and help yourself to stay healthy. 

Don’t Isolate: One of the most difficult parts of the holidays can be loneliness. We can often make it worse because one of the ways that anxiety and depression can impact us is by making us feel like we don’t want to be around others. To top it all off, because of the pandemic many people have to be physically isolated because they are ill or to protect others. Get creative about connecting with others through the phone, video chat and messengers, email, a holiday card, or even an old fashioned letter! 

Everything in Moderation: Over-eating, holiday spending, and drinking are some of the biggest sources of stress during the holidays. One strategy to avoid issues related to alcohol is to try a holiday season without drinking, since alcohol can often increase symptoms of depression. There are plenty of tasty nogs sans alcohol. But if you do drink, make a plan to limit it. Same goes with holiday eating and spending, plan your holiday budget and eating ahead of time to avoid stress later. 

Get a Move On: One way to offset all of the tasty holiday treats and to improve our mood is to exercise. It can be hard with a holiday schedule to fit it in but it can make a big difference. You can integrate it into your day like parking further away at the store, going sledding and enjoying the snow, or offering to carry your nanna’s packages out to her car! 

Setting Boundaries: During the holiday season there are all manner of demands on our time. There can be family dinners, work functions, volunteer responsibilities, shopping, and all of this on top of our regular schedule. It is okay to say no and prioritize your time. Setting boundaries can help you protect time and your health so that you can enjoy the things that are important. This goes for family functions as well. Sometimes it is healthier to avoid a toxic family gathering than to participate. 

Create Something New: Many people struggle because Christmas doesn’t look the way it did before. One way to overcome this is to create new experiences and traditions that will be memorable for years to come. They often say that the one certainty in life is change. No matter what we do things always change, and while that is hard we can make positive changes and be grateful for the good things in our lives. 

Practice Gratitude: It can often seem like everything is wrong, especially when we are struggling with depression. Depression can impact the way we think. It can help to take time each day to focus on the things in our lives that we are thankful for. It can be something as grand as our family or something as wonderful and simple as peppermint cheesecake. It can help our minds begin to see the good in each day. 

Hopefully this holiday season finds you and yours well, but if not, know that there are people out there who care and can help you get through this holiday season. Have a happy holiday and a wonderful new year from the Iowa Psychological Association.


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Comments on "Staying Mentally Healthy in the Holiday Season"

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Valerie Keffala - Saturday, January 01, 2022

Thank you for sharing this information, Dr. Johnson! These are helpful resources!

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