Self-Care Strategies: 8 Ways to Handle Challenges and Find Joy Amidst Holiday Stress

The holidays can be a difficult time for anyone. The expectations for cheer and good times are high, but the reality is too often disappointing. If you struggle this time of year, you are not alone. Take steps to connect with others, limit activities, cope with grief, recognize gratitude, and if necessary, reach out to a mental health professional.

The holiday season carries the weight of many expectations, from finding the perfect gifts to showing up at every event with a smile. For many people, especially those with mental health challenges, holiday cheer is one of the most challenging expectations.

We all have this view of the holidays as full of celebration, fun, and joy. Unfortunately, this time of year triggers grief, depression, and mental health symptoms for many. The expectation of happiness, combined with the failure to achieve it, can lead you down a dangerous path. If you’re struggling at this time of year, you can do something about it.

1. Reach Out

The most important thing to do is reach out. The most important thing to avoid is isolating yourself. Social isolation is a major risk factor for mental and physical health symptoms and conditions. It increases your risk for depression, poor sleep, diminished cognitive function, and even cardiovascular disease. Moreover, isolation and loneliness may worsen depression, anxiety, and stress.

Unfortunately, feeling sad or depressed tends to trigger the urge to isolate. You may not want to leave home or even get out of bed. It can be a big struggle, but making any effort to reach out and socialize with family and friends will help.

You don’t have to tell someone you feel depressed. You can call up a friend for a chat or invite someone out for a cup of coffee. Go shopping for holiday gifts with a friend instead of alone. Join the family Zoom call if you can’t be together in person.

It’s also helpful to engage in larger social groups. This could mean going to church or joining a community event, like a tree lighting or sing-along. Consider volunteer work as a way to give back and also connect with others.

2. Say No

Only you can say how much is enough. Reaching out and being social helps with depression and alleviates loneliness, but don’t be afraid to say no to an invitation if you don’t feel up to it.

A tremendous amount of guilt often accompanies saying no, especially when people expect you to get involved during the holidays. Remember that you don’t have to apologize and that you can say no if it’s best for your mental health.

3. Stick to a Budget

Financial stress is a huge worry for many people over the holidays. High expectations for parties, gifts, travel, and more, can lead to overspending, which in turn can make you feel stressed, overwhelmed, and depressed.

Give yourself a budget for the holidays, an amount you feel comfortable with and can afford. This will help you avoid the anxiety and other negative feelings that come with holiday spending. If this means limiting your activities or opting out of gift exchanges, that’s ok.

4. Focus on Gratitude

Gratitude is a great mood booster. If you’re feeling down, focus on what is good in your life. Researchers continue to find that the active practice of gratitude is associated with better mental health and greater happiness.

In one study of gratitude, researchers separated participants into three groups to keep weekly journals. One group wrote about good things that happened or that they were grateful for during the week. Another wrote about what bothered them during the week. The third group was directed to write about what happened with no emphasis on good or bad events.

By the end of the study, the group writing about gratitude was happier and felt more optimistic about their lives. They exercised more and had fewer trips to a doctor for physical health complaints. Studies keep proving that gratitude practice makes you happier. Here are some ways to cultivate gratitude when you feel down during the holidays:

  • Keep a daily journal to record what you enjoyed during the day, what made you happy, and what makes you feel thankful.
  • Before bed each night, take a minute to count your blessings and think about what you have that is good in your life.
  • Write thank-you notes or thank people in person for what they have done for you or bring to your life.
  • If you are religious, pray daily. If not, consider taking up mindfulness meditation. Meditate, focusing on one thing that makes you feel grateful, even if it is only small.

Even a few minutes per day of focusing on the good can make a big difference in how you feel about the holidays.

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5. Do What Makes You Happy

The holidays are often full of obligations. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or struggling to find happiness in seasonal events, be selfish. Do what you want to do. Find activities and events that don’t feel like chores.

An activity can be anything you want it to be, from staying home on the couch to watch Christmas movies alone to avoiding holiday-related activities altogether. If it makes you happy, brings you joy, or alleviates your depression, do it.

6. Focus on Your Physical Health

This time of year, it’s easy to let healthy habits slide. If you can mostly stick with those regular routines, you’ll feel better. Good physical health supports good mental health. This means:

  • Getting enough sleep each night and trying to stick with your regular sleep routine
  • Exercising regularly and getting some degree of physical activity every day
  • Getting outside, even if it’s cold, for sun exposure
  • Limiting alcohol consumption
  • Eating a healthy diet and avoiding overindulgence at holiday meals

Be realistic too. With a schedule of holiday events and meals, don’t expect yourself to be perfect about health. Allow for some indulgent meals, dessert at holiday dinners, and a few late nights. Setting expectations too high and then failing to meet them may increase your depression.

7. Honor a Lost Loved One

Grief is a common reason to feel depressed during the holidays. You may have lost someone recently or be facing a first holiday season without someone important to you. Grief tends to heighten during this time of year when people expect you to be happy and joyful.

There is nothing wrong with feeling sad over a lost loved one. Instead of avoiding these complicated feelings and trying to force holiday cheer, let yourself grieve and feel bad. A great way to recognize your loss and cope with it is to honor your friend or family member who is gone.

You can do this alone, in a private way, or connect with others who are grieving and do something together. Start a tradition to honor your loved one, such as leaving a chair empty at the holiday dinner table or sharing happy memories of this person.

Do something to give back in a way that honors the person you lost. Collect donations to their favorite charity, for instance, and donate in their name. Volunteer your time to help others in a way they would appreciate.

8. Talk to a Professional

Depression and other mental health struggles during the holidays can quickly become overwhelming, no matter what you do to alleviate them. If you take steps to feel better but still can’t boost your mood or find the energy to engage with activities and loved ones, reach out for professional help.

A therapist or residential treatment center may be just what you need to get through the season and be in good mental health for the coming year. Mental health professionals can help you cope and teach you strategies for managing during any difficult time.

The holidays can be a joyful time. They can also be a letdown. In the worst case, the holidays can sink you into a deep depression. You can take control of the season and your mental health. Take these steps and don’t feel ashamed to reach out for therapy and professional help.