Leadership / 11.22.23
13 Tips to Manage Your Mental Health Over the Holiday Season
Editor’s Note: Mental health and suicide prevention awareness are recognized during various days and months throughout the year. However, the issues and concerns for live event and entertainment professionals transcend all dates, boundaries and time zones. If you are in crisis and need immediate help, please call or text 988 in the United States and Canada or call 999 in the UK. There is a list of additional mental health and suicide prevention resources at the end of this article.
The holiday season can be a joyous time as people come together with loved ones to celebrate Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and more. Yet despite the festive cheer, these special occasions can bring sadness, stress, tension and anxiety.
INTIX recently spoke with Angela Drake and Melanie McGregor about protecting your mental health as the holiday season approaches. Dr. Drake is a clinical professor at the University of California, Davis. McGregor manages health promotion at the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Halton Region Branch in Ontario. They shared these 13 tips to navigate the emotional ups and downs of the holidays.
- Make self-care a priority. Self-care is critical for maintaining your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. This includes watching your sleep, eating and drinking.
“Give yourself a gift by prioritizing self-care. It is easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle and busyness of the season, which can take a toll. Build in downtime and whatever you need for your wellness,” says McGregor. “Ensure you are getting enough rest, and balance food and beverage indulgences with healthier eating and lots of water.”
- Remain in the present. Anniversaries of traumatic or unhappy events are one of the biggest challenges we face, says Drake.
And while bad things can happen anytime, when something occurs around the holidays, like a big family fight or the death of a loved one, people tend to remember that “sad holiday” in future years. “What I generally tend to do with my own clients is have them focus on the present and not on the past. And that's really counterintuitive,” says Drake, adding that many old therapy models involved looking at and processing your past. That, she says, makes the trigger and memory stronger. “The way that I work with people in all my therapy, not just during the holidays, is to stay very present-oriented. What can you do to make this holiday season memorable and happy? What have you done to take care of yourself?”
- Choose meaning over pressure. McGregor recommends doing what is important to you and avoiding feeling pressured by what others are doing. “Decorating not your thing? Then pass on the lights. Love visiting with family? Make extra time for that,” she recommends.
- Combat loneliness through connections. Many people feel vulnerable and lonely during the holidays, though they may not admit it. Seek connections with others and find support. How this looks is different for everyone. Some may want to reconnect with a family member or friend they haven’t talked to in a while. Others may join a social group, choir or club.
“A lot of psychologists are a little trepidatious about this, but I will talk to people about church, not because of religious reasons but because it is a ready-made social organization,” says Drake. “A lot of people [go to a church service] during the holidays anyway. They will go for Christmas service [when] they do not normally go during the rest of the year. Being around people, getting out, is really staying present-oriented.”
“Loneliness can have a big impact on mental health. If we feel like we are disconnected or that we do not matter to others, we can struggle and also feel like we don’t have support around us,” says McGregor. “Finding ways to get involved and care for others can make a difference, whether that is through volunteering or reaching out to people you think could use a friendly gesture. Also, think about supports that may help, such as a friendly caller service, support groups, or online meetups.”
- Limit consumption of media and social media. Whenever you turn on your TV or pick up your phone, there are images and discussions of negative, horrible things happening in the world. That gets a lot of people down, especially during the holidays, says Drake.
“Limiting it to a certain amount of time per day, saying you are not going to be watching some of these 24-hour news channels during the holidays, [is what I recommend],” says Drake. “The events are still going to go on, but the reality is, as individuals, we have absolutely no control over the world events that we all are very aware of. Focusing on how to make our day-to-day holiday experience better is how I try to manage that.”
- Work on being resilient. Everyone will feel grief at some point in their life. It is not, says Drake, something that you can process away. What you can do is put supports in place to help yourself through times you know will be tough, such as the anniversary of a tragic life event.
Drake recommends using the resources available through your employee assistance program if you have one. Books and workbooks on cognitive behavior therapy can also be beneficial, she says, as can planning to do something you enjoy while celebrating the memory of a loved one. Have a me day. Go to your favorite places. Spend time with a close friend. Plant a tree or donate to a charity that means something to a loved one you have lost.
“I have seen people who are still grieving after losses of 20 or 30 years. We used to think, oh, that's not right. But the reality is unless you take away that memory, you are going to continue to experience that sadness … Accepting that and saying, ‘Yes, I went through this, but I am going to work on being resilient’ [is a good approach],” says Drake.
- Adjust your expectations. Do not expect perfection, McGregor cautions. While it may be all magic all the time in made-for-TV movies, there will be challenges in real life.
“We may picture a magical holiday season where everyone gets along, but if someone is usually difficult, they are unlikely to change their behavior just because it is the holidays,” McGregor says. “And sometimes the behaviour is rooted in feelings and experiences that have built up and are not easy to let go.”
McGregor suggests that talking to people ahead of time and communicating what would be appreciated, such as leaving discussions on particular topics to another day, can be helpful. Consider thinking about what could be said if challenges arise so you have something to draw on if emotions are heightened. It is also good to recognize that you can’t smooth over every situation and make everyone happy. “Taking that on is likely to make us extra stressed and on edge,” she says.
“People build up these expectations, and I have seen it many times, especially with the holidays,” says Drake. “There is some need to have this perfect Christmas, Hanukkah or Thanksgiving, and people will build it up and up, then when something goes sideways as it always does, they are devastated.”
If you can think flexibly, you are more likely to be resilient in challenging situations and when things do not go exactly as planned.
“I am a big believer in working on plans and options with people. For instance, I have had situations where somebody is very nervous [because] they haven't seen their family in a while and there is going to be a big family gathering. We will work through it and say, ‘Okay, this is how we would like it to go, but what's plan B? What if [someone] is drunk or the food gets burned? And again, the food may not get burned, but if it does, you have a plan B in hand,” says Drake. “That is a very concrete example, but overall, when I think of working with clients and mental health issues in general, regardless of the holidays, having a flexible approach is one of the best things people can do to improve their mental health.”
- Set boundaries. Defining our limits involves considering our distinct qualities, experiences, values and needs and then communicating what we can or cannot do, give or take.
“Boundaries can help with our mental health in a number of ways, including reducing our own personal triggers that may impact our thoughts, feelings and behaviors,” says McGregor.
They also help us feel more in control of our wellness, demonstrate that we are taking positive steps, and help us prioritize our own mental health rather than feeling like the wants and needs of others are more important.
- Think about and ask for what you need. “If you are feeling overwhelmed by cooking, make your meal a potluck and let others know how helpful that will be,” recommends McGregor.
There are other situations where asking for what you need can be helpful, too. This may include how you are dealing with grief.
“These feelings won’t disappear just because it is supposed to be ‘the most wonderful time of the year,’” says McGregor. “Do what you need to do, even if it means saying no to get-togethers if you don’t feel up to them. Be gentle with yourself.”
She adds, “Think about ways to honor your loved one in new ways and do not be afraid to change traditions that are no longer meaningful. When a friend of mine lost her partner who was the one who always cooked the holiday meal, it was difficult for anyone else to take on that role. So, the family changed their holiday tradition and now go to a movie on Christmas since he was a movie-lover.”
- Check in with yourself. People can have very automatic emotional responses, especially around triggering situations. Drake recommends monitoring your emotional state, stress levels or mood scale and ranking how you are feeling from one to 10. When you reach a certain level, whatever you decide, it is time to take a break to engage in self-care.
“Come up with a plan for what happens when your stress meter, anger meter or sad meter goes up too high,” says Drake. “So many people don't have a plan. They get really angry. They get behind the wheel, and they drive like maniacs. You have to have another plan. You can walk around the block. You can go to another room and do some deep breathing. You can lock yourself in the bathroom for 10 minutes. It does not have to be a big thing, but what you don't want to do is go into that automatic loop of responding the same. If you have had the same fight for 30 years and it is getting old, how am I going to change it this Christmas?”
McGregor agrees that deep breathing is an excellent way to reduce immediate intensity and help us be focused and present. In addition to practices that can help in the moment, she recommends considering whether you may need longer-term support.
“It can be helpful to consider how long we have been experiencing changes to our mental health, how intense the symptoms are, and what impact it is having on our day-to-day lives. It is normal and expected for thoughts and feelings to change and fluctuate – it is part of being human. If we notice, however, that these changes are disrupting our regular activities and ways of being, that may be a sign that something more significant is happening,” she says. “Coping can start with taking more time for self-care and seeing if that has a positive impact. More support may include visiting a primary care provider, talking to a counselor, and looking for other available supports. Usually, the earlier changes are recognized and addressed, the better, so seek help early.”
- Breathe. Deeply. This is something you can literally do anywhere, anytime. You do not need any special equipment, and there is no cost.
“People for years have said to me, ‘I know how to breathe. What are you talking about? You want me to breathe?’ says Drake. “When you are angry or really upset, what do you do? You stop breathing. You hold your breath. You hyperventilate. All of those reactions are wired into us, and all of them have the same effect on our autonomic nervous system, and it's to decrease our blood oxygen. When our blood oxygen level drops because, say, we are hyperventilating, we tend to get even worse. Our body responds, our heart rate goes up, we start having palpitations, we have a panic attack.”
Drake continues, “You have to work at it a little bit. You have to get good at [deep breathing] and learn how to use it … We work a lot on getting [a lot of my clients] to use it when they are driving so they stay calm because you don't even realize you are holding your breath when you're driving in a traffic jam.”
If you are looking for an app to help, Drake recommends Headspace and Calm. They teach deep breathing (also called diaphragmatic or belly breathing) and other meditation and relaxation techniques. There are also free online instructions and videos.
- Focus on gratitude and reframe negative thinking. While Drake admits that many people may find this idea very “Pollyannish,” she encourages everyone to be grateful and focus on gratitude. She emphasizes that reframing things with a more positive lens improves mental health, social relations and physical health. Studies also show, says Drake, that negative people die younger, end up with more physical ailments and have more mental illness.
“‘You may always be kind of a negative Nelly. You may always say, ‘Oh, look, I had a flat tire. Bad things always happen to me.’ That is a classic negative lens [that you are] looking through. It is not that you had the flat tire or that you said you were upset about it. It's that final thought of bad things always happen to me. That is the negative lens, and that is where I focus. You are saying negative things always happen to you? What are some of the times that negative things didn't happen? It is about reframing it,” she says. “The reality is that rose-colored glasses actually seem to be protective … It isn't like everything is okay all the time. Yeah. I just had a flat tire. That really sucks. But it could have been worse. I could have had a flat tire on the freeway.”
- Check in on others. So far, this article has focused on protecting our own mental health and the strategies we can implement to do so. But there may also be people in our circles who need help and do not know where to turn.
Drake says we should not be afraid to check in with people and ask how they are doing.
“The most intimidating thing about asking a friend or family member if they are wanting to hurt themselves is saying that in one fell swoop,” says Drake. “That is definitely not the way to approach it. You want to start at the outside edges. [Ask questions like], ‘Hey, I've noticed this. What do you think of this? Have you noticed that your mood is a little down? Have you noticed that you are isolating a little bit more?’ By doing it in that way and nibbling around the edges of the topic, what you are doing is you're starting in a less confrontational way to get to a really sensitive subject.”
During our interview, Drake recommended a recent opinion piece published by the Washington Post. It is called “A stranger asked me to take her photograph. It saved my life.” The powerful essay shares the first-hand story of a young woman who had been suicidal when she was 23. The author’s intent to cause harm to herself was interrupted by another young woman who asked if she could take her photograph.
“By asking for a picture, that woman unwittingly interrupted [the author] from harming herself,” says Drake. “Thinking about it in that way, as a family member, you may be so afraid to ask [someone], ‘Are you feeling like you want to hurt yourself?’ But by asking, you might be that interrupter. You might be that little thing that stops them from following through.”
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, any change in someone’s regular thoughts, feelings and behaviours may indicate that they are experiencing declining mental wellbeing. Common signs include:
- Changes in mood, including increased irritability, anger, anxiety, or sadness
- Increased negativity
- Giving up on activities usually enjoyed
- Decline in hygiene
- Decline in work or school performance
- Changes in sleep and/or appetite
- Lack of energy, concentration and/or motivation
- Physical symptoms, such as stomach upsets and headaches
- Increase in addictive behaviours, such as substance use and gambling
- Feelings of helplessness
Additional signs that someone may be thinking of suicide include:
- Hopelessness, feeling that things will never get better
- Feelings of desperation
- Giving away possessions or otherwise putting affairs in order or saying goodbye
- Increased risk-taking behavior
- Not making plans for the future
- Talking about death or suicide, either directly, such as “I want to die,” or indirectly, such as “I want all of this to end.”
“If we are concerned about someone, expressing that concern is a helpful way to start a conversation. Tell them what you have noticed without judging, such as ‘I’ve noticed you’ve been quiet lately and not hanging out. Is there something you would like to talk about?’ If they want to talk, listen without judging or trying to change how they feel – what they are experiencing is real to them,” says McGregor. “Discuss what next steps would be helpful for them, such as reaching out to a counselor or another connection. And remember that it is not your role to fix everything for them – it is to give them a chance to talk. A supportive conversation can make all the difference.”
If you are concerned that someone may be thinking about suicide, reach out for help. Know your local suicide crisis line and connect the person to them to talk right away. If you are concerned that someone is at immediate risk of harm, call 911.
Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Resources
For immediate help, call or text 988 anytime 24/7 or call 911
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Behind the Scenes U.S. Resources: American tools and resources to support entertainment industry workers and promote mental health and wellness.
Backline: Mental health and wellness resources for the music industry
MusiCares: A safety net of critical health and welfare services to the music community.
Music Health Alliance: Free resource for healthcare, including mental health.
For immediate help, call or text 988 anytime 24/7 or call 911
Talk Suicide Canada
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention – Find a Crisis Centre
Behind the Scenes Canadian Resources: Canadian tools and resources to support entertainment industry workers and promote mental health and wellness.
Canadian Mental Health Association: Find a centre in your area to access local crisis support, peer support, treatment and learning.
Peer Support Warm Line: Confidentially connect with somebody who is trained and has lived experience with mental health and/or substance use.
Wellness Together: Resources for mental health and substance use support
For immediate help, call 999 anytime 24/7
Suicide Prevention UK
Helplines for Suicidal Thoughts: Resources to call and/or text if you need help or are worried about someone else.
Mental Health Foundation (United Kingdom): Access community and peer programs plus advice on mental health.
Mind: Information, advice and local services across England and Wales.
Music Minds Matter: Dedicated mental health support line and service for the whole UK music community.
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Tags: Leadership , Mental Health