The holidays are here again. A time to connect with family, make happy memories, and unwind….right? Not so fast. In fact, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), 64% of individuals living with mental health illness reported that their conditions deteriorated around the holidays. 
Honestly, holidays are often a bigger drain on your mental health than they are a boost. They can put you in situations you work hard to avoid most of the year, cause undue financial stress, or be a reminder of the relationships that are absent from your life. It’s not fun or cute to admit, but the holidays can be terrible.  

Here’s 9 ways to put yourself first and protect your mental wellbeing this year:

Take proactive steps to combat seasonal depression.

If you live in a place where the winter is particularly dark and dreary and it’s hard to go outside, seasonal depression can take hold. In fact, according to the Mental Health Institute, 5% of Americans suffer from the affliction. 
If this is you, make a plan to get out ahead of it now rather than letting it creep up on you. Commit to some form of exercise a few times a week for the month of December, whether it be in a climate controlled gym, or on a walk outside with a good raincoat. Also, use a daylight lamp 30-minutes a day. 

Don’t let gift-giving add stress to your life.

Gifts and love are not the same thing. This time of year it’s easy to feel like the most valuable expression of love is the perfect gift. But think about it. When someone you care about deeply gives you a small or not-too-meaningful gift do you care? Do you love them less? Absolutely not! 
Give a gift if it’s easy for you and affordable for you. But don’t spend more than you should or brave a miserable shopping trip over it. You don’t deserve that stress and your loved ones are mostly just excited to spend time with you this season.

Build new boundaries into your visits.

Are you traveling for the holidays? Or hosting? Sharing space with others for extended periods of time means you don’t have room to decompress and recharge your social battery. But it doesn’t have to be this way! If it’s financially available to you, renting a hotel room you retreat to at the end of the day could be the difference between an enjoyable visit and a suffocating one. 
Not that flush? Just remember to build some “you” time into the days that you’re visiting. Have breakfast alone at a coffee shop or spend some quiet time in your room.

Let go of traditions that no longer bring joy.

Perhaps you used to love going to the mall for the tree lighting ceremony when you were younger. It made you feel connected to your community and full of holiday spirit. But now traffic to the mall is a nightmare, drivers are crazy in the parking lot, and it's too crowded to feel fun or safe. 
Stop pushing yourself to go every year and choose peace instead. It doesn’t mean you didn’t make awesome memories there in the past.

Give yourself permission to downsize and outsource.

It is not your job to “make” anyone’s holiday. You are not responsible for other people’s happiness, and small moments lived with intention can be just as meaningful as grand gestures. You don’t need permission to skip preparing a feast by hand, throwing the annual party, or erecting the Griswold-level lawn display. 

Rebrand the vacation.

Do you tend to get particularly lonely during the holidays? Does it feel like it emphasizes what you don’t have rather than what you do? You’re not alone. But you can take back this period by reclaiming it as time for you and the things you care about. 
Rather than feeling like you’re “not seeing family” or “not celebrating”,  tell yourself you are taking a week off work to work on a project, to get things done around the house, to set intentions for the new year, etc. 

Take a social media break.

Social media gets real predictable around the holidays anyways doesn’t it? If you think comparing your holiday season with others is going to create anxiety or make you sad, Instagram is not the place to be.

You don’t have to visit with people who drain you. 

This is a big one. Repeat after me, “You don’t have to visit with people who drain you.” Even if you’re related. Even if they gave birth to you. I know this is a radical statement, but it’s one worth shouting from the mountaintops. If you have a lot of pain in your close family relationships,  that’s big stuff. I encourage you to find a therapist to help you explore these. 
Therapists are pros at helping you parse out what is and isn’t acceptable treatment from a family member. They can help you set boundaries that will protect your mental health and your life force in the way you always deserved to be protected. And they can support you if the right thing to do is to cut off contact with someone completely.
This will also help improve your emotional intelligence. Understanding the link between Emotional Intelligence and Mental Health is essential for our well-being. Improving emotional intelligence can be achieved through working with a therapist or on your own through self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, social skills, and continuous learning. 
This can help you cope with stress and build stronger, more manageable relationships with those closest to you, which can be a step in the right direction when distancing yourself from draining family members. Your mental health will undoubtedly be improved once you acknowledge this connection and act on it.

Practice the “Gray Rock” Method. 

If avoiding unpleasant family gatherings is more stressful than attending them, you can still go in with some tools. The “gray rock” method is a technique people are taught to use when dealing with narcissists. It operates on the idea that the toxic person is trying to get a rise out of you by making you upset. It feeds them. So don’t take the bait. When they ask you questions, stick to short, unemotional answers.
Here’s a classic example: You have a relative who just can’t help but bring up their politics at family gatherings and just about everything that comes out of their mouth either offends you or upsets you. Next time they proclaim something that you know to be patently false—just let ‘em. What are you going to do? Change their mind? 
Keep a neutral expression, nod, and then comment on how juicy the ham is. You’ll be so boring they’ll move on and you won’t spend time getting upset and putting your mental health at risk.


Reba Buhr