3 Ways the Holidays Support and Challenge Your Mental Health Recovery

The holidays pose several challenges for people in recovery from mental illness. Family can be a significant stressor, long lists of activities and chores can become overwhelming, and the pressure to feel good and to have fun often leads to disappointment. All of these unique aspects of the holiday season have the potential to cause harm to someone in recovery, but they can also be beneficial.

The holidays can be joyful and sad. They can be full of fun activities and also overwhelmingly stressful. The holidays bring families together but also separate them. If you are living with mental illness and have been working on recovery, you may be facing the holidays with trepidation.

Unfortunately, while many people love this time of year, others struggle. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 64% of people with mental illness say the holidays worsen their symptoms.

It’s important to look ahead and recognize the potential challenges but also the sources of support. You don’t have to feel worse this year. Consider what you like about this time of year and focus on those things.

1. The Holidays Means Lot of Family Time

Although the pandemic kept many families apart in 2020, most people spend more time with family during a typical holiday season than usual. There are dinners and parties to attend, and for some, out-of-town houseguests.

The holidays bring extended families together. This may be the only time of year you see certain members of the family. In many ways, this is supportive of your mental health and recovery from mental illness. Studies show that when people with mental illness feel supported by family, they have fewer mental health symptoms.

Another study of people living with mental illness looked at how a family could facilitate recovery. The researchers found that family support provided benefits in three different ways:

  • Family provides moral support. Simply being there and caring about a loved one is helpful. They can be a shoulder to cry on and lend an ear to listen.
  • Family members also offer practical support. This may include financial assistance, household chores, or rides to therapy appointments. By lifting some of the practical burdens and the related stress, they allow a loved one to focus more on their mental health recovery.
  • Finally, the family provides a motivating factor. If you know your family is counting on you to do the work of recovery, you’re more likely to try and succeed.

Sometimes, just being around people who love you unconditionally is enough. Knowing they don’t judge and only want the best for you can provide an enormous sense of relief.

On the other hand, many people see family as a source of stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues. The same study that determined family support could benefit a loved one with mental illness also found that for some, family impedes recovery:

  • Family can be a source of stress. Even if they love you and you love them, your family can trigger difficult emotions or even bring up traumatic memories. You may have one or two specific family members you only see during the holidays and who trigger stress for you. Their company may be detrimental at this time of year.
  • Some families or family members are judgmental of a loved one with mental illness. They may stigmatize you or fail to understand your experience and what you need for support and recovery.

Family can be a joy and a burden. If you’re lucky, you have family members who have taken the time to learn about your mental illness and know how to provide non-judgmental support, especially during a difficult time of year.

2. The Holidays Are Busy

The holidays are a busy season for most people, especially those with kids or large families. Your schedule may be overflowing with parties, family get-togethers, work events, holiday shopping, meal preparation, and more.

Having a lot on your calendar can be good or bad for mental health. On the one hand, busyness distracts you from negative feelings or thoughts. Rumination, for instance, is a hallmark of depression. With a list of things to do and social activities, you have less time to ruminate and spiral into bad thoughts.

Holiday activities are often fun too, which means you get to do something enjoyable. This is different from staying busy with chores or work, which may only add to your stress.

Staying busy can benefit you in some ways, but it can become a damaging coping mechanism. Busyness, for some people, is a way to avoid confronting difficult emotions. If you’re always going, you don’t have to stop and deal with what’s troubling you.

The busy nature of the holidays can also challenge your mental health recovery by overwhelming you. It’s easy to get stressed out over the demands of the season. You might fear disappointing people or failing to meet all the obligations expected of you.

The busyness may also be challenging if you struggle with social anxiety or depression. Being around people can be challenging and may push back your recovery.

3. The Holidays Are Full of Joy

This time of year can be truly joyful. The lights, the parties, the gifts, great food, abundant drink, and the religious aspects of the holidays make some people feel genuinely happy. If you struggle with mental illness, all of these things may provide a boost. They may remind you of happy memories from childhood. If the holiday cheer is real for you, it will support your recovery.

The problem with joy is that it can’t be forced. If you’re not feeling it, not only are you not joyful, but you also have to watch others experience this emotion. It can make you feel inadequate, depressed, and worthless.

Disappointment is a common complaint during the holidays. There is an expectation that you will experience the joy of the season. When you can’t summon these positive feelings, the disappointment can be overwhelming. It can even set your recovery back.

If part of your recovery has involved facing and coping with the loss of a loved one, you may find it especially hard to feel the holiday spirit. Going through the season without that special person would be challenging to anyone, regardless of mental illness.

How to Benefit from Support and Face Challenges

If your family supports you well, spend as much time with them as you can during the holidays. Maybe you have just one person who gets you. Stick to that person to cope with the challenges other family members present. If you need to avoid specific individuals to get through the season, don’t feel guilty about doing so.

Cope with a full calendar and chore list by setting some limits. Say no to invitations to parties. Opt-out of the office gift exchange. You don’t have to participate in events and activities that will only bring more stress and other mental health symptoms. Slow down, cross things off your list, and embrace the events and activities you enjoy.

When it comes to joy and cheer, don’t force it. Recognize that you’re not feeling it, and then let it go. Do things that make you happy, whether they’re related to holidays or not. If that means eating ice cream and watching movies instead of going to a holiday party, stay home. When you do feel the joy of the season, embrace it and let it lift your mood, even if it’s only temporary.

Recovery from mental illness is a big deal. You worked hard to reach this point, and you know you have more work to do. Approach the holidays fully aware that they may challenge your recovery. Rely on the aspects of the season that support you and make you feel good and let go of those that don’t.