Coping with Mental Illness During the Holiday Season

Posted on December 10, 2015 by admin

For many people, the holidays and Christmas can be not only a very happy and joyous time reuniting with family and friends, but also a very stressful time. Old patterns of behavior emerge, our stress levels go up, and our ability to cope flies out the window.

No sooner have we put away the Thanksgiving turkey that we turn and find the presents we need to wrap for Christmas. The holidays start a few weeks of stress and constant motion for many, as well as feelings of being overwhelmed, depression and even loneliness for others. We can’t stop the world from turning but hopefully the suggestions below can help those with a mental illness as well as those who support them cope with the holidays. And it is probably safe to assume that these suggestions are probably beneficial for all of us.

  1. Plan ahead. If you’re entertaining, use the “keep it simple” strategy. Try menus you can make ahead of time or at least partially prepare and freeze. Decorate, cook, shop, or do whatever’s on your list in advance. Then you can really relax and enjoy visiting friends, relatives and coworkers.

  2. As much as possible, organize and delegate. Make a list and check it twice. In many families, moms do most of the holiday preparations. Have a “family meeting” and make a commitment to care about mom’s mental health and share tasks. Rather than one person cooking the whole family meal, ask different family members or friends to bring a dish. Kids can help with gift-wrapping, decorating, baking, or addressing cards. Don’t overextend yourself with too many commitments. Focus on doing what’s really important to you and your family. If it’s hard to choose between activities, rotate outings every two or three years.

  3. Beware of overindulgence. Having a few too many glasses of egg nog can dampen your holiday spirit since alcohol is a depressant. Also, too much fruitcake and too little exercise will probably make you feel lethargic, tired, and guilty come Boxing Day. Exercising as a family to work out excess energy and stress is a great activity to schedule during hectic weeks. Don’t forget to get enough sleep to keep you healthy through this busy time of year. Eating well, exercising regularly and getting a good night’s sleep can help you battle stress, winter blues, even colds.

  4. Stay within budget. Finances are still a great stressor for many people. Again, eliminate the unnecessary. Set a budget, and stay within it. A call, a visit or a note to tell someone how important they are to you can be as touching as and more meaningful than a gift. You can also enjoy free activities like walking or driving around to look at holiday decorations, going window shopping without buying, or making your own decorations or presents.

  5. Remember what the holiday season is about for you. Make that your priority. Whether it’s the usual holiday advertising that creates a picture that the holidays are about shiny new toys and gift giving, remember that this season is really about sharing, loving and time spent with family and loved ones. Develop your own meaningful family traditions that don’t have to cost a lot of money. And use this time of year to help regain perspective. Also, remember not to take things too seriously. Fun or silly things to do, games or movies that make you laugh, playing with pets, and time alone or with a partner are all good ways to reduce stress. Watching children can also help us put things in perspective.

  6. Invite others. If you have few family or friends, reach out to neighbours. Find ways to spend the holidays with other people. If you’re part of a family gathering, invite someone you know is alone to your gathering.

  7. Connect with your community. Attend diverse cultural events with family and friends. Help out at a local food bank or another community organization. Lend your voice to a cause you care about like, a mental health awareness project by Michael Schratter, a Canadian teacher from British Columbia, teacher who’s cycled 40,000 km around the world to battle discrimination and stigma around mental illness. Go through closets and donate clothes and toys, or whatever you can afford. Give to a charity like CMHA that helps those in need, or donating on someone else’s behalf; you can donate at

  8. Gift-giving made easier and less expensive. Try putting family members and partners’ names in a hat and buy one gift for the person you draw; this can help reduce expenses and refocus energies on thoughtfulness, creativity and truly personal gifts. Encourage children to make gifts for friends and relatives so the focus is on giving rather than buying. If you find that your list of gift recipients is becoming ever-growing, think of combined gifts for people who live in the same household. Or arrange a mystery gift swap by asking friends to each bring one wrapped ‘mystery gift,’ then draw names to decide who picks out a gift first.

  9. Remember: the weather doesn’t help. Some people get the winter blahs each year, and a much smaller number (2-3%) develop seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Paying attention to nutrition, exercise and sleep and being careful with alcohol are also important if you have a history of depression. If your low mood carries on into the new year and starts to affect your daily life, you should see your family doctor.

  10. Learn stress-busting skills you can use year-round. If the holidays often get you down, you may struggle with stress, low mood and worry at other times of year.

Keeping the suggestions above in mind here are some additional suggestions if you are someone who supports a person with a mental illness.


The Trouble with the Holidays

The trouble with the holidays is not the holidays themselves, per se, it’s more everything that surrounds the holidays. And even if someone loves family and everything that comes as part of the holidays, it’s still quite possible that holidays can cause a switch in mood just because of the change in routine. And stress is always present at this time of year with party-planning, party-attending, gift-giving and so on.

How to Reduce the Trouble with the Holidays

The first thing that loved ones need to do is to respect the coping mechanisms the person with the mental illness has developed all year long. This means, respect their routine. Respect their need for space. Respect that they don’t drink. Respect that they need to exercise and eat and sleep on schedule. And so on. It’s tempting to say to the person, “oh why can’t you just loosen up for the holidays?” but it’s exactly that attitude that will get them into trouble. It’s critical that you support them in their healthy decisions because it’s hard enough to make healthy choices already without the support of the people who love you.

You can also help by creating less stressful environments. While everyone wants the “picture perfect” holiday, no one ever gets it, so maybe it’s time to consider striving for “good enough.” For example, don’t invite 12 people to Christmas dinner if it means that all everyone will do is stress about cooking. Maybe you could pair it down to a manageable number and reduce the stress in the household.

Try focussing on something that doesn’t require money. Many people with mental illness don’t have a lot of money because they are too sick to work full-time and this might make them feel like they can’t participate in the holidays fully. If this is the case, maybe don’t focus on big gifts for each other and instead create new traditions like a spending limit or making gifts. Make the major holiday events no-money-needed.

If the person with the mental illness is too sick to attend holiday events, try to be OK with it. Remember that their non-attendance isn’t about you; it’s about an illness they can’t control. Tell them that it’s OK, you love them and will see them soon.

Helping Out Overall

In all, try to help create a holiday that both you and the person with the mental illness can live with. Accept imperfection. Learn to listen to what the person with the mental illness needs and wants and respect it. Actively seek out their opinion and try to compromise.

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