Mental Health Professionals Offer Advice for Happy Holidays

The holidays are upon us! That usually means great food, beautiful decorations and time with family and friends. But let’s be honest: The holidays in a normal year are bittersweet. They're wonderful and joyous in theory, but the reality can often be stressful and exhausting and, for some, lonely and depressing. This year, we're heading into the holiday season in the middle of a pandemic, which takes that stress to a whole new level, but we still want to enjoy the season. To do that, we all need a little help, from a mental health perspective.

Mental health experts report a dramatic rise in drug use, divorce and suicides since the start of the pandemic. With the holidays fast approaching, many people are worried that they won’t be able to visit their parents, grandparents, children or grandchildren or that they’ll be putting others at risk by traveling out of state, out of town or even across the city. One thing is certain: Everyone is looking forward to the new year, and everyone is hoping for change.

We talked to some mental health professionals from local nonprofits — Karen H. Rhea, chief medical officer of Centerstone Tennessee; Tom Starling, chief executive officer of Mental Health America of the MidSouth (MHA); Amber Hampton, program manager of MHA; and Julia Balar, emerging adults services director of Park Center — to get their thoughts on how we can take care of ourselves, whether we’ll be with family and friends or opting to spend the season alone.

For almost every question we asked, the advice was consistent, but a common theme was managing expectations. Tom explained that we always complicate the holiday season with unrealistic expectations that are only real in movies. And while many of us love the perfect little worlds that Hallmark movies create, Julia reminds us, “Hallmark movies are make-believe, and that’s OK.” The key for a happy, healthy holiday season is to create realistic expectations for yourself and others.

On Being Alone

First, let’s talk about a reality that many will face this year: being alone. Whether by choice or by circumstance, being alone and feeling lonely during the holidays can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to ease the burden of being alone. The key here is to create your own holiday celebrations for yourself. And all four therapists gave us some great advice for doing so.

To start, plan your holidays in advance. Depending on which holidays you celebrate, that could mean many days and nights or just a few. Karen says, “Making plans with a schedule to look forward to during the holidays is the overall goal to avoid the feelings of isolation and replace them with feelings of accomplishment.”

If you schedule your days well in advance and fill them with things you enjoy, then you’ll anticipate the holidays, instead of dreading them. Plan time to decorate while watching your favorite movies. Cook and bake for yourself. Treat yourself to some hot cocoa. Drive around and look at holiday decorations. Make food for someone less fortunate. Go shopping for coat and food drives. Reach out to others who will be alone (international students or workers who can’t go home, nursing home or hospital patients, military personnel or first responders), and schedule a video call for those days. Arrange calls with friends and family who you will be missing and who will be missing you. Stay connected to other people. Find what makes you happy, and plan to do it.

On Taking Care of Yourself

Even if you’re not going to be alone, everyone needs to have a plan in place to take care of themselves. If you’re running yourself ragged trying to make everything perfect or if you’re paying close attention to what’s going on in the world, then you might not have the time or energy to be present with the people who want to spend time with you. But how do you do that? Well, to start, there’s the usual tips for staying healthy: Get plenty of rest and sleep, eat healthier foods (don’t forget to treat yourself), exercise, spend time in nature and stay connected to others. But one major thing almost everyone mentioned is to limit or cut out your time on social media — a major source of stress and frustration (and maybe even envy) — during the holidays.

Another idea is to stay connected to yourself. Meditate. Make some time for yourself, whether that’s a whole day or a few moments. Take the time to breathe. Amber explained, “The busier you are, the more important it is to check in with yourself. This can be in the morning before everyone wakes up, before you go to bed or making a trip to your car alone, just to catch your breath.” She also mentioned that it’s a great idea to make a list, when you’re feeling well, of what you need to be your best, then make a commitment to do those things every day, whether or not you feel like it. Karen seconded that: “Plans to have pleasurable activities are very important. There are wonderful holiday events on television, which can counteract the anxiety related to the news.”

Just make sure you avoid some of the more negative coping mechanisms. Karen says, “It is important to avoid the pitfalls of drinking alone, being unduly isolative and engaging in feelings of self-pity.” If things are getting to be too much, Amber described a great technique to help: “If you feel yourself starting to get anxious, pay attention to your breath; take a few slow, deep breaths. … Breathe in like you are smelling a flower, and breathe out like you are blowing on a bowl of hot soup.” Do that for one minute. It really helps.

On Caring for Others

One of the major themes of the holidays, especially in books, movies and television shows, has been to think of and spend time with others — friends, family or even people in need. During a global pandemic, that’s even more necessary, but we might need to rethink how we go about it. The best and most responsible way to keep your family, friends and yourself safe right now is by isolating, and that can be an incredibly difficult decision to make, especially if you have aging relatives you want to visit.

If you're planning to stay away from family this holiday season, make a list of people you can call by voice or video. Consider others who will be spending time alone. Your friends and family will be missing you, so plan to spend some time with them virtually.

If you are going to be with others, Amber offers, “Make sure to focus on the areas where you have control. Set clear boundaries by asking to change the topic if a conversation gets heated, or take frequent breaks as needed. You can move to another room, offer to run to the store, help set the table or limit the amount of time you spend around those who take a greater toll on your mental health.” This can help you take care of yourself and also maintain healthy relationships with the people you love.

The holidays, especially the holidays during a pandemic, have the potential to be stressful, no matter how wonderful your family and friends are. And everyone needs some help sometimes. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all feel the weight of loneliness or expectations, in one way or another. As Tom says, “Your stress and anxiety and depression [are] real and [are] treatable, and truly, there is no health without mental health. … Self-care is not selfish. To be a better spouse, coworker or friend, [the gift of self-care] is the best thing you can do.” If you’re feeling the weight of the holidays during the pandemic, don’t hesitate to reach out to one of these organizations for a little help.

Mental Health America of the MidSouth offers free, confidential online screenings on their website at mhamt.org, or visit Park Center at parkcenternashville.org or Centerstone Tennessee at centerstone.org/locations/tennesseeto get in touch with a mental health professional.