8 mental health tips to reduce holiday stress

The holidays can be especially difficult when your feelings or life circumstances do not sync up with the joy of the season. Some of us may be overwhelmed by the pressures of finding the perfect gift or preparing a flawless meal while others are experiencing grief, illness, or relationship issues. Kathleen Reckart, LICSW, a clinical therapist at the WVU Medicine Healthy Minds Center, provides mental health tips to help you navigate the season with self-care in mind.

1. Aim for realistic expectations.
The commercialization of the holiday season may tempt us to strive for perfection, but this often adds a lot of unnecessary stress to an already hectic time of year. If things do not go as planned with your menu or shopping, get creative and try something new. Stock your pantry with a few extra items in advance and have a backup plan if the food you’re cooking does not turn out as you had hoped. Crafts or coupons for services, like babysitting, cooking a meal, or cleaning, can be a great gift if your budget is tight. Do what you’re able to do within your means, and strive to compare yourself to others less often. Redirect your focus to the good company you’re in or what is going well at your celebration.

2. Recognize what you have control over.
The sooner we recognize what we lack control over the better. This is not a sign of weakness or defeat. Accepting our lack of control over various things is a way to reduce our suffering and gain empowerment. We can't control the weather, traffic, and the behaviors of other people. What we can control is our own behavior and how we choose to respond and cope.

3. Say no if you feel overwhelmed or stressed.
Instead of trying to do it all, pick and choose ahead of time which gatherings and events are your priorities. It’s okay to say no to invitations instead of spreading yourself too thin. If you’re grieving the loss of a loved one, experiencing an illness, or enduring another stressor, be patient with yourself; it’s perfectly normal if you feel like skipping events or doing something totally different from your usual tradition. Explain to others that you’re not feeling well or you’re not able to do as much as you used to right now. If it’s helpful, consider turning off or unplugging your devices for a period of time.

4. Know who is attending an event and leave early if it suits you.
Ask who might be attending a get-together ahead of time if you’re going to an extended family gathering or party. If possible, prepare those who may not know about your situation ahead of time. This may help minimize questions and unhelpful comments from others who don’t know what to say. At events, surround yourself with compassionate, kind people, who will listen and be there for you without any judgment about what you’re going through. It’s okay to leave a gathering earlier than you normally would if you’re experiencing a difficult time this year.

5. Make time for self-care.
Schedule some time for yourself on your calendar. Nap, listen to music, soak in the tub, or enjoy any healthy activity that helps you de-stress. There’s nothing selfish about self-care. When we make time to recharge our batteries, we function better in our daily lives, relationships, and all areas of life.

6. Remember to breathe.
It sounds way too easy, but taking a pause for a few deep breaths can be very beneficial to your physical and mental health. Take a deep breath, hold it, and then exhale out of your nose or out of your mouth with or without sound. Do this two more times. Or inhale to a count of five, then hold for two seconds, and exhale to a count of seven or whichever numbers work best for you. Be sure your belly extracts as you inhale and relaxes when you exhale. You can use a positive statement to focus on your breath too, such as, “Inhale peace, exhale stress.” There are also many free guided meditations online that you could try. Making time to breath mindfully can help you redirect your focus away from negative thoughts.

7. Volunteer at a local charitable organization.
Doing something good for someone else is a great way to get out of your own head. Helping others will boost your mood, reduce your stress levels, and introduce you to new people. It may also help you put things in perspective by interacting with people who are facing hardships greater than your own. Consider visiting people in hospitals or long-term care facilities, preparing or serving meals at a soup kitchen, or donating gifts to families in need.

8. Schedule a therapy appointment.
If you’re experiencing anxiety, depression, or other difficult feelings that impact your quality of life, think about making an appointment with a mental health professional. If left untreated, mental health conditions can be lethal, affect your personal relationships, impact your job, etc. It’s a sign of strength to ask for help, not weakness. A mental health professional can help you become aware of any harmful thought patterns or behaviors and make suggestions about how you could manage your stress in a healthier way.

Would you benefit from talking to a mental health professional this holiday season? Make an appointment: 855-WVU-CARE.