Navigating the Holiday Blues: Prioritizing Mental Health This Season

holiday mental health Dec 11, 2023

‘Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la la la la la... 

For some, the holiday season is just that: a time of joy and celebration. For many others, though, it can also bring a wave of stress, sadness, and anxiety. Whether it's the pressure to create the perfect celebration, cope with loneliness and loss, or navigate complicated family dynamics, the holiday blues are a real and challenging experience.  

If you’re someone who feels the weight of the holidays each year, know that you are not alone and that ALL the emotions of the season are valid – both positive and negative.  

Let’s take a look at some common triggers of holiday-related stress and sadness, and more importantly, talk about some practical tips and coping strategies for navigating this time with self-compassion and a focus on well-being.  

What’s Weighing On You? 

Each person has a unique experience with this time of year, but there are some common triggers that are often the culprit for holiday blues. As you read through the list, reflect on your own experience – which of these resonates with you? Maybe it’s something that’s not listed. If that’s the case, spend some time getting clear on what aspects or situations feel most difficult for you.  

  • Perfectionism & Social Expectations: No matter how often we might hear the phrase “nothing is perfect,” it’s difficult to let go of unrealistic expectations of holiday joy and the ‘perfect’ day. Images of curated celebrations on social media or in movies only add to this challenge, and the pressure to live up to these standards can be overwhelming.  
  • Loneliness: Not everyone has a supportive network or family to spend the holidays with, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Especially during a season where ‘togetherness' is a common theme; loneliness can feel particularly heavy. 
  • Family Dynamics: For many, family gatherings during the holidays can be both a source of joy and stress (and often some anger!). No matter how well-intentioned everyone in the family (including yourself) may be, conflicting personalities, unresolved tensions, or the absence of loved ones can quickly intensify negative emotions.  
  • Grief and Loss: The absence of someone special during festive celebrations can trigger a range of emotions, from sadness to nostalgia. Whether a recent or more distant loss, the holidays can amplify feelings of grief and loss year after year.  

Self-Compassionate Holiday Coping Strategies 

When we become aware of what triggers our heavy emotions during the holidays, we have the ability to start learning how to cope with them in ways that invite comfort and compassion into our season.  

Let’s take a look at the above triggers and identify ideas and strategies for coping with each one. 

Perfectionism ---> Set Realistic Expectations: 

Challenge the notion of a "perfect" holiday – both in your mind and in practice.  

A great way to set practical expectations for yourself is to create a realistic to-do list (realistic being the key word here)! Write down all the things you want to accomplish this season. Don’t overthink it – whatever comes to mind, write it down. Once you have your list, look over it and decide what your priorities are. Be selective and only pick the things that matter most to you. If you’re struggling, ask a loved one to sit down and help you go through it. Once you decide, circle each to-do. Come back to this list when you’re feeling overwhelmed to re-orient yourself to your true priorities.  

And remember: imperfections are a natural and beautiful part of life, and societal expectations don't always align with reality. Set expectations for yourself, your celebrations, and your interactions with others that are true to your priorities while still allowing space for the messiness of life.  

Loneliness ---> Seek New Engagement & Connection 

If broken family connections or physical distance are bringing a feeling of loneliness into your heart, shift your focus to new forms of engagement this season.  

Try out a holiday event or activity in your local community, whether online or in-person, to foster new connections while getting in the festive spirit. Looking for opportunities to volunteer for a cause close to your values can also help you feel fulfilled while connecting with other like-minded people. 

And lastly, engage with your own self-care. Make a list of activities that bring you joy and comfort and commit to spending a small part of each day giving back to yourself. While this season can be a difficult reminder of broken bonds, allow yourself the opportunity to combat loneliness with new connections and a commitment to your own wellness. 

Family Dynamics ---> Set Boundaries: 

Establish clear boundaries to protect your mental well-being. This could involve limiting the number of social events you attend, setting boundaries with family members, or communicating openly about your needs.  

A helpful strategy for setting holiday boundaries is to think of them in terms of firm, medium and soft boundaries. Firm boundaries are ones that have little flexibility – ones that you will stick to with little room for change. Set firm boundaries around the things that most affect your mental health. For example, if attending more than 1 holiday gathering over the course of a weekend leaves you feeling mentally and emotionally drained, set a firm boundary around only attending 1. Work your way down from there – setting medium and soft boundaries around situations, people and places that contribute in varying degrees to stress or sadness.  

Creating space for yourself and your needs is essential for maintaining balance. If boundaries are extra challenging for you, remind yourself that setting them really is a sign of love. It shows your loved ones how they can care for you, and helps you prevent emotional burnout and show up as your best self for those around you. 

Grief and Loss ---> Honoring Traditions in New Ways 

If grief or loss has been a significant part of your holiday season, consider honoring traditions in new and meaningful ways.  

It can be something as simple as sharing stories and memories with your friends and family or incorporating a lost loved one’s favorite recipe into your holiday meals. Or maybe it’s creating a new tradition in their honor, such as lighting a candle or making a playlist with their favorite songs.  

These kinds of traditions, new and old, can help you maintain a feeling of connection to those you have lost even amidst feelings of grief.  

Your Reasons For The Season 

The holiday season is a mixed-bag of emotions, and it's important to make space for each one of them. Spend some time this week getting curious about the hard parts – and commit to being open, honest and patient with yourself and your loved ones about ways to cope with them.  

Stay connected to your values, your wellness and your true reasons for the season. For an additional resource & space to practice what you’ve learned, download this guide! 


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