Christmas is often described as a time of “happiness and cheer.” With fabulous food, festive decorations, parties, and presents, it is no wonder that excitement is the expectation.
But what if the holidays make you feel worse, not better?
In 2014, the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 64% of people with mental illness say the holidays make their conditions worse. A 2021 survey showed that 3 in 5 Americans feel their mental health is negatively impacted by the holidays.
I personally—having received mental health care for over 15 years—know how soul-crushing it is to see the world wrapped up in Christmas cheer while your own heart feels dark and broken. And while I’m not a doctor (and I highly encourage you to seek professional medical help if you are struggling with your mental health), I have five tips to help you care for your mental health this holiday season.
- Be GENTLE with Yourself
Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)
Give yourself grace as you navigate this holiday season. Instead of berating yourself for struggling with sadness or anxiety, speak to yourself as you would a dear friend. What would you say to a loved one who expressed fears and challenges to you? Chances are you wouldn’t tell them to “just deal with it” or that they’re being childish.
You deserve the grace you extend to others.
Also, consider what “triggers” you during the holidays and strategize about how to best avoid those situations. If crowds and loud noises cause you anxiety, maybe plan shopping trips for non-peak hours, or do the bulk of your purchases online. If the thought of going to another large holiday gathering sounds like a nightmare, consider opting for smaller, more intimate get-togethers with close friends.
The goal is to identify your triggers and come up with a workaround to limit your exposure when possible. And while you engage in this practice of self-care, give yourself permission (and credit!) for looking after your mental well-being.
- Be GRATEFUL
I will praise you with all my heart, Lord my God, and will honor your name forever. (Psalm 86:12)
Let me be clear: I am not endorsing “toxic positivity.” Mental health struggles do not disappear if you read motivational quotes on Instagram or read a depressing news story to “feel better” about your own life. Whether you drown in five inches or five feet of water, the outcome is the same.
Everyone’s struggle is personal and cannot be judged against another.
Okay, with that disclaimer out of the way, I have found a practice of gratitude to be helpful—not as an antidote to mental illness, but as an act of rebellion against the evil and destruction in our world. I’m grateful for my family, friends, shelter, and food… but also the way the light is hitting my neighbor’s eucalyptus tree and how two strangers just smiled at each while one opened the door just now at the coffee shop I’m writing from.
Finding small yet intentional moments of gratitude help orient my heart toward goodness, whether I’m struggling with my mental illness or feeling stable. Paying attention to God’s goodness in our world won’t necessarily eliminate mental health struggles, but it will help your journey be a little more bearable along the way.
- Be GIVING:
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Matthew 25:40)
Being generous during the holidays isn’t only about giving good gifts or throwing fancy parties. If you have experience with mental health struggles, whether personally or with a loved one, be generous by giving your help and understanding. I have found it rewarding to come alongside and encourage those inexperienced with prioritizing their mental health.
A story told by Leo McGarry on The West Wing encapsulates this idea. In the episode Noel, Leo is talking to his subordinate and friend, Josh Lyman. Josh is struggling with mental health issues, and Leo is no stranger to battling his own internal demons. He takes Josh aside and says:
This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole. Can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me. Can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
This holiday season, be on the lookout for holes and come ready with a flashlight and ladder.
- 4. Be GENUINE:
Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life. (Proverbs 4:23)
This is a busy time of year, no doubt about it, and you surely have events on your calendar that you’re hoping will be canceled. We all get roped into attending events or helping out, either out of a sense of duty or obligation. Some things you just have to do.
But some things you don’t.
Take stock of what is on your plate for the next few months. What are the things you need to do, even if it’s definitely not your favorite activity? Maybe you need to work at your kid’s school bake sale. Why don’t you forgo the baking and just buy the cookies? Don’t want to host a church ladies’ tea at your house? There is nothing wrong with graciously saying “no” if asked. Not only will these sorts of decisions help your mental health, you may be allowing someone else the opportunity to step up.
Be intentional about your commitments, saving your “yes” for things that bring you life.
- Be in a GROUP
Without guidance, a people will fall, but with many counselors there is deliverance. (Proverbs 11:14)
As an introvert, I have to admit that this was not an easy thing to write—but it’s true. Being with others in community is vital to maintain mental wellness. There are many kinds of groups—small groups at church, a tight-knit circle of friends, a group therapy session you attend for your mental health, etc. The important thing is to find a group of supportive, loving people with whom you can be honest.
I know this is easier said than done, but it is well worth the effort. The holidays remind us of the importance of interpersonal connections and loved ones. If you are struggling with your mental health, being open and honest is the first step in walking toward a path of health and healing. Sharing your struggle, asking for advice, and seeking support from a community are all ways to keep yourself on track.
I pray that the holidays are a time of comfort and joy for you and your mental health. Remember that you are not alone and that the central theme of Christmas is Emmanuel: God With Us.