The holidays can be draining. The festive season is supposed to be a time of joy (at least if commercials and cheesy TV movies are to be believed), but when it doesn’t match how we really feel, the pressure to be merry and bright can feel suffocating.
If the expectation of holiday cheer just brings a sense of dread, you’re not alone. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of Americans with mental health conditions actually feel worse during the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years. On top of expected holiday stress, this is also the time when Seasonal Affective Disorder (AKA seasonal depression) is in full swing. Combined with seeing (or not seeing) family, scrolling through endless highlight reels on social media, and keeping pace with our usual obligations, it’s no wonder the winter months can be a fast track to burnout and avoidance.
Powering through the holidays can take a serious toll on our mental health, and masking how you feel doesn’t make it any easier. Here’s our guide to making it to New Years without sacrificing yourself.
Practice saying No (and set firm boundaries).
One of the most important parts of advocating for ourselves is knowing what we need to feel comfortable and safe. By setting high standards for how we’re treated, we can build more fulfilling relationships and reduce the stress of unrealistic expectations.
Sometimes, friends and family might think they’re helping by persuading us to change our minds about a boundary we’ve set. When someone pushes you to “just try it” or promises “it’ll be fun” after you’ve already said no, that’s toxic positivity.
The boundaries you need to set may not look like someone else’s (and your own boundaries might change over time). Depending on your situation, setting boundaries during the holidays might look like saying:
- Thank you for offering, but I’m not going to drink today.
- Let’s talk about something else.
- I’d love to stop by, but I can’t stay for longer than an hour.
- I appreciate the invitation, but I’m going to spend the holiday at home this year.
A sign of a healthy relationship is being able to respect the boundaries without bargaining, guilt-tripping, or pushing for more information. If you find yourself in a situation like this, you can honor your own boundaries by excusing yourself from the situation.
Set time aside for yourself.
In a season of gift giving and splurging on others, we don’t always recognize when we’re neglecting ourselves. If you find yourself ignoring your own needs (and yes, downtime is a need), putting off self care, or convincing yourself it’s not that bad, you might need to make time to pencil yourself into your schedule. Some ways you can prioritize yourself are:
- Give yourself permission to accept help. Although it might feel like it, you’re not responsible for keeping the world spinning. If someone offers to help out, give yourself permission to say yes! If you live with other people, asking for practical support with tasks like putting together a holiday menu, grocery shopping, and decorating can help you free up your schedule to put more time into yourself.
- Squeeze in a therapy session. Therapy is one of the most direct ways to check in with yourself on how you’re feeling, what you need, and what is (or isn’t) working for you. If you don’t have a therapist (or if your therapist doesn’t have availability around the holidays), try grounding yourself with journaling, mindfulness, or talking to a trusted friend.
- Treat yourself. One of the causes of holiday burnout is giving so much time and energy to others that we’re left without any for ourselves. While being selfless is a noble goal, it should never come at the expense of your own happiness. Find enjoyment in the holiday season by buying a special present for yourself, ordering dinner from your favorite restaurant, or giving yourself the night off for a fun outing with friends.
Like any other chore, self care is something you actively decide to do—even if it sounds boring or difficult. No matter how busy your schedule is, self care should always be on your to-do list.
Be an example.
If you’re able to offer support to others, the holiday season can be a chance to change patterns of toxic positivity in our own families.
Have you ever been in a situation where someone told you to “just cheer up,” “get over it,” or “stay positive” when what you really needed was support and understanding? One silver lining of these experiences is that you have the power to recognize when someone else’s feelings are being minimized. Here are some ideas for setting an example of healthy emotional habits:
- If there are children in your family, teach them that it’s OK to feel emotions like disappointment, worry, and sadness—even on special holidays. You can help build a healthy family culture by validating your child’s feelings instead of telling them to cheer up.
- Not everything needs a positive spin. Sometimes, bad things happen with no rhyme or reason. We might try to push away the awkwardness of difficult emotions with platitudes like it could be worse or look on the bright side, but all this does is force us to ignore how we really feel. Leaving space for others to process difficult feelings is a better way to show support and make a difference for people you care about.
- If you see toxic positivity in action, speak up! Depending on your family dynamics, you might try advocating for yourself by explaining what kind of support actually helps you. You can also validate the feelings of your loved ones by simply reassuring them that it’s okay to struggle or be upset.
Wishing You a Healthy Holiday Season
No matter how much pressure there is to get into the holiday spirit, anxiety and depression don’t stop for special occasions. The culture of toxic positivity only makes these problems worse, but we can flip the script by setting boundaries, knowing our needs, and changing how we talk about mental health.
Whether you’re staying home, visiting relatives, or spending time with chosen family, you can find moments of joy even in the chaos of seasonal anxiety and depression. The holidays won’t always feel happy, but we can strive to make them healthy.