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4 Ways to Prioritize Your Mental Health While Visiting Family This Holiday Season

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Yippee, it’s one of my favorite times of the year! I’m a tad holiday obsessed, as in I left my Christmas tree up until April last year… And one of my favorite parts of the holidays is traveling to see my family. However, as I work hard to get more honest and vulnerable with myself regarding my mental health, I have realized I often experience a mental health hangover following a family gathering. I don’t think I am alone, in fact; my own mother would agree with me. We spend years developing relationships with family members, everyone brings their baggage to the gatherings, and those filters we use when other people are around might forget to show up with family.

These factors, along with many others, create the perfect mental health triggering storm that is family holiday gatherings. We may be left feeling sad, anxious and straight-up depleted as we say our goodbyes. I don’t think it has to be like this. We can enjoy the holiday season and the time spent with loved ones without sacrificing our mental health. Here are some ways to support your mental health during your holiday family gatherings:

1. Build in space.

Where’s the rule that says you have to spend every waking moment with your family when your visiting for the holidays? Nonstop interaction is exhausting for anyone, but add in all the family dynamics and it’s no wonder we’re all so drained. Zero time alone always leaves me more susceptible to a mental health breakdown, either alone in the bathroom (probably crying) or post-trip.

If you are spending longer than a day with your family, I encourage you to plan for some time apart. Sneak away to a local coffee shop, see a movie or take a long walk. If your family gives you a hard time, own it. You are making your mental health a priority, and that is brave, but if all else fails, lie and say you have a headache and watch some Netflix in a bedroom (kidding, maybe). But in all seriousness, space away from all the hoopla will give you a chance to process, recharge and not kill anyone.

2. Try getting vulnerable.

You know that particular topic that always seems comes up during the family gathering that upsets you, or that relative who makes you want to burst into tears? This year, try getting vulnerable with yourself and your family and share when something is anxiety-inducing or may cause you to slip back into depression post-gathering.

Yes, getting vulnerable is scary, but there is a high chance your family doesn’t realize they are hurting you. By getting vulnerable and sharing that your family’s words or actions are upsetting, you create space for change and healthier relationships. Please don’t read this and think I’m permitting you to yell at your family… this really won’t help anyone! Instead, try this: “Hey fam, I know we talk about this (work, relationships, a triggering memory) when we get together, but I have noticed that it is a trigger for my mental health, so mind if we change the subject?”

3. Think through your triggers before you go.

I’m usually a big fan of the ignoring method — you know, if you pretend something doesn’t exist, it will eventually disappear — but sadly this doesn’t work when it comes to your mental health triggers at family gatherings. Pre-gathering, take time to think over the last family get-together. What upset you? When did you feel depleted, anxious or sad? Acknowledging these moments can help bring light to the different situations that could bother you during this holiday season, and it allows you to pre-plan your reaction. By taking the time to note my triggers, I felt like I gained a little power. Yes, they do exist, but no they don’t need to break me.

4. Create an “escape plan.”

OK, now that you know your triggers, what are you going to do if one comes up this holiday season? Some of the best advice a therapist gave me was to plan ahead for when I encountered something mentally draining. Yes, it sounds so simple, but if you’re like me, you haven’t spent a lot of time planning your reaction. Think through what you need to feel better during your gatherings. My therapist suggested creating a bank of verbal responses, planning time apart ahead of time so you know there is a break or confiding in someone who is also joining the gathering and turning to them for support if something upsetting happens. These are just a few ideas, but the point is to plan pre-family time to avoid the post-mental health hangover.

The holidays are such a special time, and I am beyond grateful I have loved ones with whom I can enjoy the season. In the past, I honestly avoided acknowledging the impact family gatherings have on my mental health because I felt guilty and, you know, denial is easier. This year, I am encouraging myself to fully enjoy family gatherings and Christmas cheer without sacrificing my mental wellness. It’s a win-win, and I hope you give it a shot yourself. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Photo by on Unsplash

Originally published: December 17, 2018
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