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4 Effects of Holidays on Mental Health

By Natasha Tracy B.Sc  •   December 6, 2021

Photo Credit: by Marko Klaric, Pexels.com
Photo Credit: by Marko Klaric, Pexels.com

Holidays have many effects on mental health. Some people look at the holidays with a spark of wonder in their eyes while others look at them with dread. Some people find that holidays lift their mood and make them feel happier, while others find that holidays are stressful or depressing. Most of us, though, fall somewhere in between. Most of us find some aspects of the holidays to be good for our mental health while other aspects are harmful. So, let’s discuss the positive and negative effects holidays have on all of us.

Why Are the Effects of Holidays So Strong on Mental Health?

Your mental health can be affected by anything that happens in your life. It can be impacted by tragedy such as a death or by celebration such as when getting a promotion at work. But it doesn’t have to be a personal experience to affect your mental health; things in your environment can easily impact your mental health too. For example, many people found living through the COVID-19 pandemic very hard on their mental health. But even things that aren’t as extreme, and, indeed, even things that are expected like holidays, can affect how we feel inside. It may be the case that those with mental illness see the strongest effects on their mental health, but anyone can find the holidays uplifting or depressing, for a variety of reasons.

There are many reasons that holidays are so powerful on our psyche, just a few are:

• They are omnipresent from events to music to decorations, and this can be overwhelming.

• We tend to have strong emotional ties to them from our past which may be positive or negative.

• The pressure to perform in the way a holiday deems necessary can be something we either can’t or don’t want to do.

• We can’t afford what a holiday demands, either financially or even emotionally.

• Our life doesn’t look like the Normal Rockwell version of a holiday says it should.

• We overextend ourselves during a holiday and don’t live within healthy limits financially or personally.

And all of the above forces are interacting on all of us during the holiday season. It’s no wonder holidays can have such strong effects on our mental health.

Holiday Effect on Mental Health #1: ‘The Holiday Spirit’

Heading into the end of November and December, people are often expected to exude “the holiday spirit.” Those in “the holiday spirit” experience joy and happiness at this time of the year and they express those feelings towards others. This can be a positive, for some, and if you look around at Christmas lights and eggnog only to feel uplifted, that is great. But if you’re not feeling the way the holiday suggests you should, it can have a negative effect on your mental health.

Being put under societal pressure to feel happiness at a certain time of year can actually make a person feel worse, especially if that person is dealing with an existing mental illness, grief or loss, or another personal challenge.

If you find pressure to be in the “the holiday spirit” is having a negative effect on your mental health, try this:

Remember that you don’t have to be happy all the time, or even at prescribed times.

Recognize your actual feelings. This can help you release them.

Avoid numbing your feelings with drugs and alcohol and this will just make things worse in the long run.

Surround yourself with people who feel similarly, or who can respect how you’re feeling, no matter what it is.

Holiday Effect on Mental Health #2: Participating in Holiday Activities

Of course, no matter the holiday, activities are part of plan. Activities for holidays often involve large meals, parties, gift-giving and more. And thinking about carving turkeys and opening gifts can bring a smile to many. This is a positive holiday effect on mental health. Unfortunately, though, some people don’t feel that way. Some people want avoid every holiday event due to upsetting past experiences, social anxiety, or even just personal preference and the pressure to participate becomes a negative holiday effect on their mental health.

If participating in all the holiday activities just isn’t for you, try this:

Try setting boundaries and only attending events that you want to. For example, maybe skip parties but enjoy turkey dinner with loved ones. Or, if no event speaks to you, plan alternatives for yourself that you enjoy more.

Find new ways to celebrate the holiday that you can enjoy. Maybe you could volunteer for a charity instead of spending time with family.

Make sure and set time aside for yourself and your own self-care. Participating in activities will be easier and more enjoyable if you are well rested and centered in yourself.

Make an extra therapy appointment for anxiety-management if you can. Anxiety can be very tricky to deal with at a holiday event, but a therapist can teach you extra coping techniques and offer extra support during this time.

Make sure to communicate your plans with others so they aren’t surprised when you don’t show up for a major event.

Holiday Effect on Mental Health #3: Gift-Giving

Gift-giving can be an amazing and fun tradition at the holidays. Giving and receiving gifts can bring about uplifted mental health. But that’s just not true for everyone. If gift-giving isn’t something in which you want to partake because of a lack of funds, for example, you can feel very down when you see others doing it. Overflowing holiday gifts beneath the tree can be a source of great joy or a source of sorrow if you can’t participate for some reason.

If gift-giving makes you feel down, try this:

Give only what you can. That might mean sticking to a strict budget, or possibly getting creative. If that means making cookies, great. If that means making a card with a selected piece of poetry inside (written by you or someone else), wonderful. Gifts don’t have to be things; after all, most of us have enough things already.

Get others involved in the way you want to give gifts. Maybe your family can agree on a Secret Santa event where each person only buys one gift for another family member, so no one goes overboard.

Remember that you time is a very valuable gift. If you can’t give a thing, try giving of yourself. Offer to make dinner, help clean, or provide childcare in the upcoming year.

Holiday Effect on Mental Health #4: Loneliness and Isolation

While some people experience the holidays as a very social affair and enjoy this aspect greatly, others find it isolating. This is likely because the activities we’re all used to often shut down over the holidays and people spend time with their families instead. And while this can be very positive for the mental health of many, it can be very lonely for others who may not have families with which to spend time. If your only social interaction is at a pottery class and it gets canceled, you can feel very alone. Similarly, if your friends leave town to spend time with their families and you don’t have family yourself, you may feel extreme isolation. Loneliness and isolation are not only negative for one’s mental health but they can also worsen any existing mental illnesses that a person may have. Additionally, those with depression or anxiety may find it hard to reach out in this circumstance.

If the holidays affect your mental health through loneliness and isolation, try this:

Plan ahead. Find out what people are doing ahead of time so you can plan for times when you may be alone.

If you can’t be with people in person, try virtually being with them. While wrapping your arms around someone may be ideal, an online video call can be just the thing to remind you of your connections. Texting, phoning, and sending holiday cards are other good options.

Tell people what you need ahead of time. For example, ask for holiday cards early so people can support you by sending them. Schedule video calls before things get busy.

Be around other people you don’t know. For example, you could volunteer for a charity during the holidays. That will get you interacting with others. Even just going to the library and striking up a conversation with the reader next to you can be the connection you need.

Overall Advice if the Holidays Affect Your Mental Health Negatively

Overall, there are many ways to prevent the holidays from having a negative effect on your mental health. But if none of these work for you, remember:

Be realistic. The holidays are just a time of the year. The “magic” and “happiness” embedded in the holidays is more myth than reality.

Don’t quit your healthy habits. The holidays can be tough but if you abandon the habits that keep you healthy during the rest of the year, they can be even harder. Keep eating right (as much as possible), exercising, getting enough sleep, and avoiding excessive drug and alcohol use.

Acknowledge your feelings. It’s okay to admit that the holidays are hard. It’s okay to admit that you’re down or lonely. It’s okay to admit that grief has taken over your holiday. The only way to deal with these feelings in a healthy way is to first call them out and acknowledge them.

Reach out. Other people can help you with your feelings, but only if you reach out to them. Remember, while others may appear to be all jolly and light, many others are experiencing tough mental health effects from the holiday too and may just be trying very hard to cover it up. These people will likely be relieved to drop the façade and talk openly with you about what you and they are feeling.

Finally, don’t hesitate to contact a professional for help during these times. If you’re feeling persistently sad or anxious or have physical concerns like not being able to sleep or eat, and these continue over time, it’s appropriate to talk to someone who can help.

Call a helpline any time (you do not have to be suicidal to call) or see a doctor or therapist.

Sources

1. McLean Hospital, “McLean’s Guide to Managing Mental Health Around the Holidays.” Nov. 14, 2021.

2. Mayo Clinic Staff, “Stress, Depression and the Holidays: Tips for Coping.” Mayo Clinic, Dec. 11, 2020.

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Disclaimer:

The purpose of the above content is to raise awareness only and does not advocate treatment or diagnosis. This information should not be substituted for your physician's consultation and it should not indicate that use of the drug is safe and suitable for you or your (pet). Seek professional medical advice and treatment if you have any questions or concerns.