The last two months of 2023 are wrapping up, the holidays are in full swing, and before we realize it, the holidays, whether stressful or not, will be over, and 2024 will be at our doorstep. For many, this is a time to spend with family and friends, contemplate the elements of our life we're grateful for, and rejoice in past memories while hopefully creating new ones. For countless others, the holidays can remind them of feelings of fear, loneliness, and something they're hoping to "just get through."
Many movies and TV shows have highlighted the humor, frustration, and everlasting emotions associated with visiting family and coordinating the sometimes-overwhelming number of plans. Whether it's externalized pressure to see everyone, to make others happy, scrambling to budget finances to cover gifts and travel expenses, or finding people to see and activities to do, there's no question that the holidays include some form of stress for most people. This point is particularly true for those experiencing mental health symptoms and struggles.
Generally speaking, individuals navigating mental health challenges can sometimes find themselves lacking the connections that once were or never present. Isolation and the anticipation of feeling this loneliness can be debilitating. In some cases, people who work diligently to promote their mental health experience a decline in their mood, the return of symptoms that have been dormant for months, and sometimes threaten sobriety. Despite the bright and chipper messages we're exposed to in holiday ads and commercials, the season’s expected typical sentiments and moments of joy can feel few and far between for many.
Considering the potential for the holidays to foster varying emotions and feelings for different people, from warm and welcoming to cold and saddening, this article will provide tips and considerations that can make the holiday season more approachable, no matter what you're expecting in the coming months.
How to Develop a Cope Ahead Plan
At Compass Health Center, we often discuss developing a Cope Ahead plan as a valuable skill. While the details of the plan will vary from person to person, it consistently involves identifying situations that might trigger uncomfortable emotions, considering coping strategies, and, for those willing, envisioning how these situations could unfold and practicing how to manage and address them. A few examples of this include:
- Define your comfort zone for sharing. Decide how little or how much you're comfortable sharing about changes in your life with family and friends. Then, you can say it aloud, record (through video or audio), or talk through the scenarios with your therapist or a close, trusted friend. You may have specific people you'll talk to during the holidays with whom you would like to share what's been happening in your life, for better or worse. On the other hand, there are likely people you'll see with whom you have no interest in sharing any intimate details of your life. Having highlighted specific talking points for each scenario helps us feel more confident and increases our chances of disclosing as little or as much as we want.
- Identify coping skills and practice them. Make a list of specific coping skills you can access in whichever situations you are most concerned about and practice these skills a few times before the actual event. Trying it out on your own is an integral step in assessing whether the coping skill will be helpful and having practiced in advance will provide the confidence needed to do it in the moment. Breathing exercises, developing a mantra (a word or phrase you can repeat to yourself), and identifying someone or multiple people you can call or even chat with in person to check in are all some examples of coping skills that someone can utilize quickly and often fly under the radar from others. This might also include identifying people with whom you feel most comfortable and giving them the heads up in advance that you’d like them to stick by you or check in with you.
- Make a schedule that prioritizes your mental health. Make sure to plan enjoyable and relaxing events in addition to and in between events or times that may feel stressful or sad. Scope out community events or activities you're interested in a few weeks before the holiday season. Contemplate what you might be interested in doing if you're worried about having no plan. Consider expanding your search beyond your town to include other neighborhoods and cities around you. Exploring multiple areas will increase your chance of finding something that feels nostalgic in a positive way, provides a novel experience, or just keeps you busy. Once you've made a list or have several tabs open on your phone, filter out events in your search you're most and least likely to attend. Once that list is made and potentially ranked, deciding what you'll do should be more manageable. It is easier to have a list of plans or potential activities in advance than to try to come up with something in the moment.
If you find creating a Cope Ahead plan valuable—and research supports that it is—follow up with relaxation after practicing it. Whether taking a walk, decompressing with a hobby, completing a brief breathing exercise, or treating yourself to your favorite meal, granting yourself permission to care for yourself will further increase your chances of the Cope Ahead plan working. Plus, you get to choose what you do afterward, which is both empowering and rewarding. If we're being honest with ourselves here, the holidays often come with some level of compromise with yourself or others, so you might as well get some choice in how to care for yourself. Engaging in these activities serves as a way to decompress after rehearsing or imagining scenarios. Although taking a few minutes to walk through them before a holiday event might be challenging initially, it enhances the chances of effectively using them when they’re most needed.
Understanding the Stress-Vulnerability Model
Many other options are available if you’re questioning whether creating a Cope Ahead plan is unrealistic for you. Before providing other tips, it's important to highlight that the holidays may cause disruptions to routines, habits, and opportunities for self-care. The Stress-Vulnerability model is a straightforward concept that can help us understand how we function as humans and how stress affects us. This model encapsulates the principle that the more our stress increases, the more vulnerable we are to returning or worsening symptoms. Even if you're not someone navigating depression, anxiety, or any other mental health diagnosis, stress is stress, and it can take a toll on the best of us. This time of year often presents expected and unexpected reminders of loved ones we've lost, no longer present traditions, and the separation and blending of families and friends. Without taking a deep dive into Neuropsychology, one piece of information that's helpful to acknowledge is that certain parts of our brain assist us in decision-making and processing information. These same parts attempt to predict how things will happen in our lives, sometimes by jumping to conclusions. While that can be helpful under certain circumstances, when accessed too frequently during particularly stressful times, such as the holiday season, jumping to conclusions or overthinking can often produce increased anxiety and even rumination. Therefore, participating in any activity that provides us with a sense of control can counteract that part of our brain that attempts to predict what's happening next.
The Importance of Self-Care
In revisiting how increased stress can cause unpleasant feelings, it goes without saying how relevant it is to enhance our self-care practice. Again, this can look different for everyone. That said, a few basics are considered universal for most people. If you have a specific routine or structure for your week, lean into it as much as possible in the coming weeks before holiday gatherings. Continuing to attend therapy appointments, engaging in religious or spiritual practices and gatherings, getting your workout in that week—even if it's less than usual—and even prioritizing showering, brushing your teeth, and other hygiene tasks are all encouraged. You may feel especially inclined to avoid these things that take effort but it is important to find ways and rely on supports who can spark in you the motivation to follow through. While sticking with routines and accessing support they are crucial components toward increasing wellbeing. Remember, that brain of yours craves predictability and will likely need more predictability amidst all the changes in your schedule. Ensuring some level of normalcy and familiarity is why maintaining your regular habits during the holiday season can help you feel more equipped to maneuver the rest of this year.
Tailoring Your Approach: Find What Works Best for You
It's important to acknowledge that these recommendations may not be accessible or even applicable to every situation or every person. A host of different traditions take place within each family, influenced by race, culture, geographic location, socioeconomic status, religion, family dynamics, and a host of other factors. In addition, some individuals have limited supports and limited access to traditions and resources because of the effects of xenophobia, homophobia, discrimination, and the like. Suppose you align with any or all of the listed experiences. In that case, it might be helpful to consider revisiting, revising, and/or initiating new traditions and practices that allow us to support ourselves—and perhaps others. A practice that has become more and more popularized is scheduling a Friendsgiving with old or new friends. Friendsgiving can look like going out to dinner, gathering at a friend's space to hang out and cook, or joining each other virtually if your friends are out of state or the country. All the above can be considered Friendsgiving, and there are likely many different variations out there that are worthwhile.
Another alternative would be to see a movie. It can be with others or by yourself, and it can be another way to create a vision for the holiday season that can help promote personal choice and be a fun experience. In some instances, movie theaters may offer showtimes featuring films beyond new releases, often at discounted rates. Lastly, there is always the option to volunteer at various organizations. Animal shelters, food banks, homeless shelters, local libraries, and youth centers are just a few. Another less common volunteer opportunity would be volunteering your skills or services to your local library, community center, or other local organizations. You can also even do this virtually (Catchafire)! If helping out close to home isn't an option or holds its barriers, there are ways to help globally. Utilizing websites and services like Volunteer Match, Global Volunteers, or Catchafire, mentioned earlier. Either route provides options. Helping others and acts of service and kindness can have a restorative, meaningful, and positive effect on our own mood and well-being as well as on others.
Empower Your Holidays: Shaping the Season Your Way
At the end of the day—or the year, for that matter—discovering ways to establish new traditions, solidify old traditions, make holidays more approachable through the tips in this article, or get through the holiday season is up to you; you can have a voice in how this time of year unfolds. Give yourself a chance to cope ahead, minimize your stress, and develop different or adapted ways in which you interact with others, the world around you, and yourself. Tending to your values, needs, and preferences throughout the holidays can make things more worthwhile and could be a growth opportunity for how you care for yourself beyond 2023.
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LCPC, Primary Therapist, Compass Health Center