Whether it is Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza, the holiday season is most typically known for a time to be with family, and to eat and drink in excess. For many people this will be considered a well-deserved time to let their hair down and relax. But for others, it can feel like a time to retreat from family and friends due to the increased pressure to indulge, or not feeling emotionally safe in such environments. Furthermore, it can bring painful reminders to some that they don’t have close family and friends to celebrate with in the warm, cozy scenarios that are so often broadcasted in advertisements, designed to pull heart, and purse strings.

For those struggling with mental health and addiction disorders the holiday season can feel particularly lonely and challenging, especially for those that are new to recovery.

It is widely recommended that a good way to feel prepared for the holiday period is to make a safety plan. Although it can feel overwhelming, it is helpful to accept that there will be moments of temptation, regardless of how much you might try to avoid them. For example, a person may offer you something, or make a comment, without being aware of your situation; the pressure to be “merry” at this time of year not only means to be happy, but also intoxicated, and the two are so symbiotic to some, so careless comments are often made while trying to encourage the holiday spirit. Furthermore, it is near impossible to avoid supermarkets attempting to draw people in and buy discount food and alcohol; these triggers exist, so it can be helpful to be prepared.

Some helpful tips for those struggling with drugs or alcohol this holiday season are to:

  1. Make plans, if possible, with people who are aware of and are supportive of your recovery, and avoid contact with those who make you feel under pressure or uncomfortable.
  2. Bring your own non-alcoholic drinks to parties to avoid mentioning the fact you are not drinking.
  3. If you are attending Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza meals, ask the host to let you know which foods contain alcohol.
  4. Plan to leave any event as soon as you begin to feel uncomfortable, and to contact your sponsor, or a trusted person to discuss your feelings.

Those that suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) may find that this time of year exacerbates the feeling of being out of control, which can be incredibly distressing. The sudden and significant routine and schedule change by either being in someone else’s home, or having other people in your home can feel overwhelming and bring about intense symptoms of the condition. The change of environment may induce urges to check or re-do wrapping, cleaning or cooking, but there are ways we can prepare and support ourselves, such as:

  1. Talk to someone you trust about how you’re feeling and see how they might be able to assist or support you through the holiday period.
  2. Make sure that you are getting enough rest, healthy food and positive influences.
  3. Try to challenge intrusive thoughts, negative feelings and the meanings attached to them, understand that it is normal to feel this way due to the current circumstances and the feelings will not last.

The relentless pressure to be joyful throughout the entirety of the holiday season is unrealistic, but nevertheless social media enables a constant comparison between us. It may appear that some people “have it all”; enough money, food and close relatives and friends to make the holiday period perfect. Not only is this hardly ever the case, but it can make us feel insecure, unworthy and left out.

For those that suffer with depression, anxiety or stress disorders, this kind of pressure can feel intolerable. Invitations to parties can feel like a double edged sword to some; feeling perhaps like other people are invited to more parties giving the sense that we are being left out, and on the other hand feeling like we are unable to attend due to social anxiety; a sense that we are not good enough or something bad might happen if we socialize. Furthermore, shopping malls and supermarkets can feel overwhelming with increased traffic and often very little time to be alone or to reflect. For those struggling with mental health disorders such as stress, anxiety or depression, urges to withdraw and isolate from all the festive hype can often seem like the best way to deal with it; but there are other ways you can help prepare:

  1. Try to avoid drugs and alcohol to help cope with the feelings of hopelessness or sadness, or the need to “fit in”; while these may be effective short term coping mechanisms, it will likely bring about more intense feelings of depression, anxiety or stress the following morning.
  2. Instead, talk to someone you trust about how you are feeling to see what suggestions they might have to support you.
  3. Make a list of the things you are concerned about and tackle each thing on the list one by one to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
  4. While doing so, try and put facts above feelings; try and notice when catastrophizing is in play, and challenge it.
  5. Dedicate at least 10 minutes per day to breathing exercises or mindfulness.
  6. Take a break from social media; it will still exist after the holiday season! Social media has shown to increase anxiety by making constant comparisons without context, it will also help you be more present.

Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza are typically as exhausting as they are enjoyable; it is important to remember that if any of the feelings previously described are becoming unmanageable, then it is important to seek help from a professional.

From all of us at Heather R Hayes & Associates Inc, we hope this guide will help you through the holiday season. From all of the team, we’d like to wish you a happy and safe holiday.