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  • Writer's pictureAllison Kent

Finding Balance Throughout the Holiday Season by Setting Boundaries

The holidays can be a challenging time for many of us. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that over half of all people living with mental health challenges experience an increase in symptoms during the holiday season. At best, it is a fun and exciting time for us to take a break from the day to day and spend time with our family and friends. For others it can be a time of increased isolation, loneliness, added stress due to financial pressure, or an activating time for those navigating mental health or life challenges. As humans, we require both stability and novelty to thrive. We need routine and predictability with just the right amount of variety to succeed. From the time we are born, we are wired to connect with others. Connection makes us feel safe and secure and inspires us to seek out new information and experiences. For those of us who may not have had the most stable formative years, or perhaps have experienced hardships during major events such as birthdays and holidays, this time of year can be taxing. Here are four areas of concern and ways to address them. 

  • Physical Stress - Winter, cold weather, traveling to visit relatives or going home for the holidays all can certainly affect our physical health. If you struggle with sleep issues, chronic illness, dietary challenges or any disability, changes to your routine can be hard. Consider allowing extra travel time so that you do not have to rush through the airport. Allowing yourself time to eat appropriately and take your medication in a routine manner while traveling can help you maintain your physical health. Check in with your medical team to discuss how to manage missed medication doses or time changes. Many people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, a cyclical condition which affects mental health as impacted by the weather. Most people experience symptoms of SAD during the winter months due to inclement weather and report feeling increased symptoms of depression, loss of interest, and low energy. You can learn more here. Changes to our routine definitely can affect our mental health--transitioning into different time zones, being around people we have not seen in a while, as well as eating different or new foods. All of this can impact our physical health and make us feel dehydrated, constipated, or affect our skin and sleep. Be mindful of how quickly you are transitioning during this time of year. Try not to overschedule yourself. Drink less alcohol. Drink extra water. Try to keep your food and exercise routine consistent when possible. If you can't get to your gym, you can always do a mini yoga session from your phone in your hotel room. Get your kids involved in a stretching exercise, or a five minute pajama dance party. Put your headphones on in the middle of the airport and do a guided meditation. Communicate your nutrition needs ahead of time to family or friends. If you have celiac disease or are vegan, sharing your needs ahead of time can make events easier for all involved. 

  • Emotional Stress - When are you getting married? When are you having kids? Where are you applying for college? The endless questions that come with the holiday season can feel daunting and intrusive. You do not owe anyone an explanation into your day-to-day life, nor do you need to give a presentation on your five year plan to Cousin Susie. Feel confident in redirecting the conversation back to the present moment. If necessary, validate the question and move on. "Thank you for being interested in my college plans, I am looking forward to hanging out with my cousins tonight." "Wow, as much as I am looking forward to wedding planning, right now I am looking forward to watching the kids open gifts." "Hey, thanks for asking about when we are having kids; right now we are just happy to be here with everyone in good health." If someone really pushes, a simple, "I am not ready to talk about that yet, thank you," will suffice. You can also simply walk away, refill your drink, use the restroom, or go pet the dog. Yes, family is hard, but having your personal boundaries walked all over is harder. If you will be around people who have caused you harm such as family members who have perpetrated, enabled, or dismissed your past or current abuse or neglect, it is even more critical that you establish clear boundaries to keep yourself safe. If your children will be away from you due to a custody order, find a trusted confidante or counselor to reach out to during this time.

  • Social Stress - Less truly is more. Spending time with family and friends during this time adds so much to our already overwhelmed social calendars and mental bandwidth. It's okay to wear the same outfit to multiple parties, and even to not go to all of the events. Pick one event per weekend, and set a limit on how long you will be there, communicating in advance that you will need to leave by a certain time. No explanation is needed, but if you must, you can simply say things like, "We need to leave before traffic," or "We promised ourselves to take it easy this season." People who are uncomfortable with this and give you a hard time are used to you not honoring your own needs. It's new to them, just like it may be new to you. Avoid the "shoulds." Married people should... Families should... No, not really. Should is usually rooted in expectations that may no longer align with your current needs or values. You and your partner can decide what makes sense for your family. You can decide what makes sense for you. 

  • Financial Stress - Many families struggle with pressure to give elaborate gifts to their children or loved ones.  It is easy to feel like you are falling short of expectations when we are surrounded by endless reels on social media pushing us towards consumerism. Underneath most of the jingle bells, most of these influencers with their perfect mantles are struggling with debt. It's okay to say, "One big gift and one small gift." It's okay to say, "Before we open any presents, we are going to go through our current wardrobes and toy collections and fill up a bag to donate." Consider the true meaning of the holiday season and practice experiential gift giving, a "Mother-Daughter Date," or an introductory music lesson or dance class for you and your partner. There are so many interesting causes and charities that would benefit from your generosity. Making a donation in someone's name is a lovely gift that also doesn't take up a lot of space. 

Identify some challenge areas that you can anticipate and come up with a plan to keep yourself safe. If you have a friend you trust to be your accountability partner and check in with you during this season just to help you feel connected, now is the time to ask for that support. Save these crisis numbers below in your phone; you never know when you or a loved one might need them. Many people also take a break from their regular therapy appointments during this time of year, and if that works for you it is understandable. Consider making sure you have an appointment scheduled for early January just to stay connected. In the aftermath of COVID-19 and the post-pandemic shift, there continues to be a national physician and psychiatry shortage, as well as extensive waitlists for mental health services. Many therapists hold space in their caseloads for their ongoing clients, as well as keep a few spots open for emergencies. 

  • Suicide Crisis line: call or text 988

  • Veterans Crisis line: call or text 988 then press 1

  • Allegheny County Crisis Center: 888-796-8226

  • Beaver County Crisis Center: 724-371-8060

  • Trans Lifeline: 877-565-8860

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