It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Isn’t it?

The truth is, despite the obvious benefits, the holidays can be a stressful time. From sorting presents, endless socializing, unrestricted indulgence and sky-high expectations, it takes skill to flourish during the festive season.

Although most of us feel pressure as the end of the year draws closer, those whose mental health is already strained may particularly struggle.

I know this all too well; during my darker years of anxiety and depression, part of me dreaded Christmas.

The pressure of holiday happiness

In an attempt to fit in with the Christmas spirit, I went to great lengths to sustain a facade of happiness, which exhausted my energy. Below the surface, I felt anxious and guilty for not feeling a certain way.

Why can’t I enjoy Christmas? Everyone else is happy, what’s wrong with me?

These 4 tips have helped me flourish during the festive break; they’re applicable to everyone, but particularly those feeling a little anxious about the upcoming period.

Here’s how to handle holiday struggles:

1. Embrace imperfection

Experiencing depression or anxiety is hard any day of the year. But added pressure to be merry and socialize may make symptoms stronger. Excessively high standards around how we feel at Christmas are created by “shoulds” — statements of the way things should be.

This is emotional perfectionism. For example, you may hold beliefs such as “I should be happy on Christmas Day,” “I shouldn’t feel anxious relaxing with friends,” “I shouldn’t get annoyed during social events with family.”

Anytime we hold to such “should” statements, we deviate from our reality. Expectation creates distance from reality and resistance to how you really feel.

What’s the solution?

Simply bringing awareness to your should statements eases perfectionist tendencies.

Ask yourself: what way do I feel I should be?

In addition, many of us have perfectionist ideas of how the day will unfold. How do you feel the day should unfold? Write your answers down in a journal or talk them through with someone you trust.

Then, using cognitive rationalization techniques, challenge those should statements.

For example, “I should be happy on Christmas Day,” can be altered to “I’m not feeling too happy, and that’s okay. I’ll be with what I’m experiencing and try my best to enjoy the day.”

2. Set boundaries

Expressing and setting healthy boundaries was a massive breakthrough in my mental wellbeing, particularly around Christmas.

I live away from home, so I don’t see my family much. When I’m back, it’s an adjustment. I love my family to bits, but they’re a lot more talkative and active than I am. At one point, this used to frustrate me. A lot.

One Christmas when I was struggling in my personal life, it reached the point when I snapped.

I realized I was expecting them to just know I was struggling to keep up with conversation. I engaged in difficult conversations, but expressed that this was simply a difference in character and it didn’t mean there was a lack of love if I needed a break.

My family were great about it, respected my honesty, and things improved.

When setting boundaries, I remind myself to do so with compassion and not resentment.

The longer we go without expressing boundaries, the more we place blame, and this opens the door to resentment. Instead, we have to take responsibility and express with heart.

A note on this topic: if your loves ones encroach on your boundaries and there’s no room to express that, or your boundaries are completely disrespected, remember there is no obligation on your part.

You can leave the situation if this feels like the right thing to do for you.

Friends-toasting-to-the-holidays

3. Care for your physical health too

Do you have a sweet tooth? A recent study by the University of Kansas discovered added sugars contribute to depression. Those sweet Christmas delights trigger metabolic, inflammatory and neurobiological processes that can further decrease low mood. 

While that’s not to say treats have to be canceled, it’s worthwhile paying attention to your diet if you are prone to depression.

Be aware of how certain foods affect your mood. Adjust if necessary.

Additionally, alcohol consumption is a hot topic in relation to mental health. I quit drinking 18 months ago, and I’ve noticed an increased sense of ease around Christmas. Years before, I had become aware that I had anxiety due to the constant opportunities to drink. They felt like obligations, really, and I didn’t have enough conviction in saying no. 

As I socialized over beer and mulled wine, my mental health deteriorated, and I didn’t feel strong enough to abstain. If you’d like a break, I recommend talking to a loved one and explaining why, if you’re comfortable.

Lastly, getting in the gym when I can, even if only for a moderate session, keeps my body in check and creates more ease in my psyche.

4. Embrace impermanence

When you’re a kid, the holiday build-up seems to last forever. Every advent calendar door opened or candle lit feels like the equivalent of a few months as an adult.

With Christmas music starting mid-August and adverts incessantly invading personal space from September, the day itself can feel really significant.

While it can be, remember that, like everything in life, this too will pass. In the blink of an eye, it’ll be New Years, then January, then summer, then Christmas music in supermarkets again.

I find this a useful reminder to avoid creating “fixed” concepts in my mind.

No matter how the day unfolds, soon it’ll be yesterday, then last week, then a few years ago.

Not only does this put the magnitude of the festive period into perspective to alleviate unnecessary pressure, it will remind you to compassionate towards yourself, too.

It’s also a gateway to appreciating the days as they come– and to going into the new year stronger than ever.