The music in the stores are reminding us that “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” And while many people feel that way during the holidays, many others dread what the holidays bring. If you’re cringing at the thought of the holidays, here are six steps you can take to protect your mental health as we transition from turkey time to waking up in a brand-new year:
- Set your boundaries and follow them
Boundaries are simply a matter of being clear and honest about what we expect from others … and from ourselves. They help us have the confidence to steer clear of situations we know will be unpleasant or fill us with regret. It’s everything from knowing what time you’ll leave an event to quietly walking out of the room when your uncle starts ranting about politics.
- Plan ahead
Holiday events can be exhausting, so make sure you take steps to prepare yourself both physically and emotionally. Get plenty of rest, especially if you’re going to be staying up later than normal. Stay hydrated and eat thoughtfully. If you’re at your third event of the evening, you’re not obligated to eat yet another meal. Enjoy one serving of your favorite dessert instead of feeling you have to try them all.
- It’s okay to say no
When people ask you intensely personal or troubling questions, you don’t have to answer. When Aunt Brenda demands to know who you’re dating — like she always does — ignore the question or change the subject. Do that enough times, and she may even stop asking. Don’t let anyone force you to drink or eat things you don’t want. You don’t need to make a dramatic stand. Just answer confidently and remember that “no” is a complete sentence.
- It’s also okay to skip some things
Just because something is a family tradition doesn’t mean you’re required to attend if your mental health demands otherwise. Maybe it’s just been a rough year, and you don’t want to be badgered to share the details over and over. Maybe you’re just not feeling well and don’t want to spend an evening being told to look happy. Maybe it’s because you can’t believe anyone thinks it’s a good idea for you and that person at the party to ever get within 100 miles of each other again. Don’t give in when others use guilt to try to force you to change your mind.
- Focus on what you can control
Okay, so you’re obligated to attend the company Christmas party even though you know that one individual’s going to be intoxicated and in obnoxious pursuit of you. Ask a couple of your trusted coworkers to keep an eye on you and swoop in if you get cornered. You may not be in control of every situation, but you can think of actions to make them less frightening or frustrating … like practicing a confident response for the inevitable question you just won’t answer. “Why, Aunt Brenda, weren’t you the one who always told me it was impolite to pry?”
- Be mindful of what is going well
Try as we may, we can’t escape human nature. And part of that nature is the way we react to risks. Our ancestors were from a time when every day was an exercise in simple survival. Unfortunately, we inherited their brains’ watchfulness in identifying and reacting to threats like hungry panthers. When some daily thing doesn’t work out, our brain instinctively wonders whether we’re about to become panther food, and floods us with stress hormones so we can leap to safety.
Know what? The opposite works, too. If we make a conscious effort to notice the good things in and around our lives, our brains release happiness hormones. Then a funny thing happens: our brain so enjoys those hormones that it starts noticing more good things. (Want to make it even more effective? Practice gratitude for the good things in your life, and you’ll feel happier. True story.) Not sure there are any good things in your life? You might want to give some thought to sitting down with one of our counselors, because we know good things are there, but something is interfering with your ability to notice them. Set a time to talk, and we may be able to sharpen your focus on the good.