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10 Steps That Need to Be in Your Mental Health Self-Care Plan This Holiday Season

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I don’t know about you, but I just looked at the calendar and realized the holidays are coming quick. So, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, with the holidays approaching. As a therapist, I know that winter and the holidays are known for increasing stress, lowering mood, more frequent and intense reminders of trauma and loss, body image and eating challenges, increased conflict and family dysfunction, and greater vulnerability to mental health issues you may already deal with. So, while there can be merry and bright days…

It can also be… a lot.

But rather than letting the season happen to us, I think there’s power in thinking ahead and asking ourselves some hard questions. Our best tool for managing the unique challenges of this season is to be aware and prepared. In this post, I’m breaking it down into my biggest tips for both adapting your self-care practice to the season, and how to navigate complex family relationships during the holidays.

Self-care isn’t always on the top of our holiday list, but it should be — especially if you have complicated family relationships like many people do. So why is self-care often overlooked during the holidays? The problem is two-fold: it’s hard to remember, and our needs are different.

I know how it is: traveling, staying with family, not being at home, being around different people, having a different schedule, a different environment. All these changes mean we’ve gotta up our self-care game.

1. Remember your self-care toolkit.

Make a list of your go-to tools for self-care for easy reference. Schedule relaxing or restorative self-care activities as prevention. Get creative. Bring comforting objects (like your favorite blanket or candle).

2. Have a schedule.

Sure, unexpected invitations might come up, but for the most part, your plans can be pretty predictable. Looking at your schedule ahead of time helps reduce ambiguous anxiety. It also gives you a sense of control over your plans and helps you prepare. None of us want the holidays to steamroll us, but we can avoid that if we take a few minutes to jot down any events, parties or plans you have coming up.

Visualizing your schedule helps avoid overdoing it. It’s incredibly stressful to realize you’ve overbooked yourself (or even double-booked). Looking at plans ahead of time gives you the opportunity to shift your itinerary as needed. You can intentionally make plans you know will be uplifting to help you through.

3. Learn from the past.

Think about previous holidays and what went wrong. What were the most difficult parts? What was the most draining or exhausting? What factors played a role in conflict or difficulties that arose? Figure out what situations, comments, emotions or behaviors are triggering for you. Being aware of these triggers gives you more opportunity to prepare.

4. Make your own plans and traditions.

You don’t have to go along with what everyone else is doing. You can engage in your own holiday traditions or rituals. Baking cookies, looking at holiday lights, making gifts, attending a religious service, or a New Year’s Day Hike. Make a list of activities you would like to do and who you can invite to join you. It’s OK if you don’t do them all. Simply having your own plans and traditions for the holiday season is empowering and helps give you a sense of independence from your family, if you need it. Even with family obligations, you can craft some of your own holiday memories.

5. Adjust your expectations.

It’s also important to check your expectations for the holidays. Don’t expect that all previous conflicts, tension or behaviors will disappear. We hope for the best, but also prepare for the worst.

6. Honor and manage your emotions and grief.

A season so focused on family can bring up feelings of sadness, anger or loneliness. Notice these feelings and express them in healthy and appropriate ways. Allow yourself to grieve not having the experiences or relationships as you’d like. Make space for grief over lost loved ones — light a candle or make a toast or visit their grave. Allow yourself to connect with the loss.

7. Set your boundaries.

You have the right to be respected, valued and feel safe (emotionally and physically) at all times. You can’t control the actions or emotions of others, but only how you act and respond. Boundaries are part of every relationship. If you have family members who have a history of hurting or abusing you in any way, boundaries are crucial. Boundaries are how you express what is and is not OK when relating with you — what you will and won’t accept. Identify the family members who cause you harm. Limit how much time you spend with them. Establish what topics you are not comfortable discussing with them.

When a harmful comment or behavior comes up, use an I-statement with a request:

“It hurts my feelings when you say that. Please don’t make comments about my clothes or body.”

“I understand you have concerns about my career choice, but it’s hurtful to continue to hear your criticism. I want to spend quality time together, but I need you to keep your concerns to yourself.”

“I’m not comfortable being around you when you drink, but I’d love to get together without alcohol.”

“I’m only willing to discuss politics if you can leave name-calling out of it.”

“I hear you’re upset about this. I’m starting to feel overwhelmed, and I need to take a break before we continue the conversation.”

The purpose of boundaries is to promote healthy interactions as much as possible. But sometimes, it doesn’t happen. If someone doesn’t respect your boundary, you can remove yourself from the situation or the relationship. Remember, managing difficult relationships is complicated. This is a journey, so be gentle with yourself as you learn new skills or try changing your responses.

8. Have an escape plan.

If you know you are going into a family event that has the potential for conflict or triggering you, consider an escape plan of how you will remove yourself if needed. With that in mind, avoiding drugs and alcohol may be a good idea in case of a need to leave. Give yourself permission ahead of time to end a conversation, take a break or leave a room or situation as needed. This is part of maintaining your boundaries.

9. Slow down.

The holidays can be the busiest time of the year, and it takes intention to keep a slow pace. Allow for ample margin in your schedule. Adjust your plans if needed — it’s OK to decline an invite. Don’t accept an invitation right away, but instead give yourself even a few moments alone to check-in.

Small rituals can help us slow down, too, such as pausing before entering a party or a new room during an event, taking our time while using the restroom, and remembering to take deep breaths when you drink fluids — don’t forget to drink water. Plan for more time in your nightly routine to decompress and process.

10. Ask for support.

Talk to a trusted friend or loved one about what you might experience during the holidays and how they can help. Share your self-care plans. Consider scheduling phone calls or calling/texting them if you feel overwhelmed.

If you don’t have someone in your life like this, there are other options. Leverage social media in your favor. Join a Facebook support group. Save the numbers for various hotlines in your phone in case of a crisis. You don’t have to do this alone!

Put it all together, and it’s your holiday self-care plan.

A version of this article originally appeared on

Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

Originally published: December 12, 2018
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