The holiday season is often portrayed as a time of joy, with lots of laughter and being surrounded by loved ones. Sometimes, however, the reality is that the “most wonderful time of the year” isn’t always merry and bright. For many Americans, however, the holidays are instead a source of stress, anxiety, and emotional turmoil that wreaks havoc on their mental health.  

In a recent poll, nearly half (48%) said they feel more stressed during the holidays than the rest of the year. They’re worried about the financial burden of the holidays — buying gifts, expensive travel plans, inflation. They’re anxious about dealing with their families — especially if they’re hosting the get-togethers. In some cases, it has nothing to do with the season’s pressures but rather current events like the COVID-19 pandemic or world affairs and politics. 

Whatever’s got you down this year, here are five tips to help you navigate the holidays while maintaining your mental health.

Communicate and set boundaries

Setting boundaries and managing expectations is crucial for protecting your mental health during the holidays. Communicate your needs and limitations to your loved ones. This can also look like setting spending limits on gifts (to avoid any awkwardness during the gift exchange if one gift is much more expensive than the other), agreeing to attend an hour of a social event, or letting others know when you need a moment to yourself. 

Sometimes, the best way to protect your mental peace is simply saying “no.” If you know attending a gathering would cause distress, don’t force yourself to participate in the festivities. It might seem nerve-wracking, but those who genuinely care about you will understand and want you to prioritize your well-being. 

Don’t be a perfectionist

Unfortunately, many people lose sight of the true purpose of the holidays and worry about everything being perfect rather than just enjoying spending time with loved ones. Giving up the need for perfection (having the perfect tree, being the perfect host, cooking the perfect dinner) will free up a lot of mental load and leave you free to enjoy yourself. 

Perfectionism is associated with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental illnesses. If you find it difficult to let go, there could be a deeper issue rather than just concern about the holidays themselves.

Schedule self-care

You must counteract the stress if holiday-related social engagements or obligations are unavoidable. It’s easy to say that you’re going to prioritize self-care, but in the hustle and bustle of the season, personal indulgences tend to fall by the wayside. To ensure that you make time for yourself, build self-care into your schedule and literally add it to your calendar, planner, or to-do list.

Practice self-compassion, give yourself permission to take breaks and rest when needed, and add stress-reducing activities, such as exercise, meditation, or engaging in hobbies, into your daily routine. This can significantly improve your mental well-being during the holiday season and help you get into the holiday spirit.  

Get some sunlight

Another reason you feel sad, anxious, or otherwise unwell during the holiday season is because of the seasons. Seasonal affective disorder, better known as seasonal depression or SAD, is a form of depression that occurs in the autumn and winter months when the days are shorter and there are fewer hours of sunlight. 

Too little sunlight has been shown to cause chemical changes in the brain that can leave a person moody and irritable. To overcome this, take advantage of natural sunlight as much as possible (e.g., going outside during peak sunlight hours, keeping the curtains open). A sun lamp is a great alternative that can bring the sun’s power into your home. These light sources mimic the sun and provide an exposure to 10,000 lux of light — but without the harmful ultraviolet exposure. 

Seek support

If you find yourself struggling with your mental health during the holidays, don’t hesitate to seek support from mental health professionals. Especially for individuals who have experienced the loss of a loved one, the holiday season can be particularly challenging to navigate. It’s important to acknowledge and honor your feelings of grief and allow yourself space to feel your emotions. 

Therapy and counseling can provide you with the tools and strategies to navigate this challenging time, help you process your emotions, develop coping mechanisms, and provide a safe space for you to express yourself. Online therapy options make it easy to get support from the comfort of your own home with minimal interruptions to a busy schedule.