After a year and a half of Covid-related lockdowns and restrictions, many of us are looking forward to spending more time with friends and family this holiday season. Many of the holiday traditions that used to be an annual part of our lives will resume this year, even if we have to modify them a little to keep people safe. The holidays can be a time of anticipation, joy, and connection. But there is another side to this season, and one we must keep in mind. The holidays can be a time of stress, anxiety, and worsening mental health, increased risk for those living with mental illness or substance use disorder, and painful grief for those living with the loss of a loved one from these diseases.
For many of us, holidays can be a time of stress, anxiety, and depression. Many factors can make the holidays more stressful than other parts of the year: the increased financial burden of travel and gift-giving, packed holiday schedules with parties and events that interfere with other responsibilities, strained relationships with family members that become more difficult with more family time, pressure to find the perfect gift for a loved one, and loneliness for those who aren’t spending holidays with family or friends, to name a few.
For those with a diagnosed mental illness, the holidays can be even more difficult. One study from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 24% of people with mental illness reported that the holidays made their condition a lot worse, and 40% reported that they made their condition somewhat worse. Other studies have found that self-harm, suicide attempts, and completed suicides increase after holidays. This can be a difficult and dangerous time for people with mental illness.
Substance Use Disorders
And that is true for people with substance use disorders too. In addition to the stress and anxiety that can be triggers for substance use, the culture of alcohol consumption at holiday events adds a layer of temptation that can be hard to resist or communicate to people around us. Complicated or difficult relationships with family members we see at holiday gatherings may increase the stress of the season, and because substance use disorder can run in families, we may find ourselves at family gatherings with loved ones who don’t understand the importance of our recovery or who continue to drink heavily or use drugs in our presence. Research shows that drug and alcohol consumption increase during the holiday season. The environment of stress and substance use around the holidays can make it a dangerous time for people with substance use disorder or living in recovery.
Grief can also make the holidays a tough time for some of us. In addition to over a half million deaths from COVID, we continue to lose far too many friends, family members, and neighbors to suicide and overdose. Nearly 50,000 people a year die from suicide. This past year saw more than 100,000 deaths from overdose – the largest in a single year. These tragic deaths leave behind loved ones who grieve all year long, but the holidays can be especially painful. For people living with grief, the holidays can be the most difficult time of the year. Time with family and friends can be a reminder of who is missing, and memories of special holiday times with a deceased loved one can sharpen the pain of loss. With so much excitement and cheer around, it can feel inappropriate to express feelings of sadness and loneliness that exacerbated during this time. But it’s important to find ways to let these feelings out.
What Can We Do?
Given that the holidays can be a challenging time for people experiencing stress or anxiety, increased symptoms of mental illness, pressure to use substances, and painful grief, here are a few things you can do to manage the challenges of the holidays:
Be aware of your needs and triggers: Put your well-being first. Take time to recognize the specific aspects of the holidays that may be difficult for you, and to the extent possible, limit your exposure to these triggers. Have a plan for handling those situations that cause you stress that you cannot avoid.
Take care of your physical health: Exercising, eating right, and getting enough sleep will help your body handle the increased stress of the season.
Manage your time: Don’t try to do more than you can, and make sure to build in time to care for yourself and relax.
Surround yourself with the right people: While holidays sometimes mean spending time with people who make things harder, focus on spending more of your time with people who support your well-being, don’t add stress to your life, and allow you to express the feelings you need to express.
Stay active in therapy, treatment, or self-help: Part of the challenge of the holidays is they sometimes interfere with our normal healthy behaviors, like going to therapy, treatment, or self-help groups that help us manage behavioral health. Make keeping these appointments a top priority.
Take the time to make your home a safe space for anyone visiting: As you prepare to have friends and family visiting your home, take the time to safely dispose of unused medications and properly store others. As your young adults come home for the holidays, too, you can also take time to learn common warning signs and what to look for in the home.
The holidays can be a time of great joy, but they can also challenge our mental health and recovery from substance use disorder. For people grieving a lost loved one, they can be especially difficult. As we celebrate the opportunities for togetherness that are returning this holiday season, let’s also take steps to protect and improve our well-being.