Mental Health Support Toolkit - Holiday Edition
When I was younger, the holiday season was my favorite time of year. I loved all the lights, the decorations and the music, and there was always winter break. While all my friends were playing video games, I put my tiny hands to work helping my Abuela make tamales for all her church orders. (Those days are behind me now…I am not making tamales anymore, so don’t ask.) With that being said, the holidays have a unique way of making me nostalgic and nauseated all at the same time.
Things are going to look very different for all of us this year. Some of us are feeling the pain of isolation from our loved ones because of the Coronavirus. Some of us are dreading the political landscapes of our families because we have opposing views. For many more, the added stress of finances is felt extra hard this year. Our mental health feels caught in trying to navigate life as well as the holidays. One thing that I am incredibly grateful for is that I can use my mental health journey to help me navigate the uncertainty of this new normal.
Before I began putting my mental health first, I was plagued by depression and anxiety that was fueled by perfectionism. And still today, society is no help with this matter. We’re all bombarded by the marketing machine telling us that we must strive for the Hallmark channel, but the Norman Rockwell holiday just doesn’t exist.
I realized over the years that the pressure of getting the perfect gift, sticking to the family script, visiting everyone in my family, going to church and working longer hours created an overwhelming sense of failure. I used to think that dreading the holidays meant that something was wrong with me. No matter how many Christmas movies I watched or holiday drinks I ordered at Starbucks, which were too many, I never found Christmas cheer. I felt like I was missing something. But the truth was, I was missing me.
Here are a few ways to navigate the holidays this year while putting your mental health first:
Redefine the holidays for yourself.
One of the biggest tools that has helped me is learning to redefine the holidays with my values. Instead of perfectionism showing up and making me feel like a failure, I have learned to view the holidays around what I truly value. Gratitude, for example, has helped me slow down and appreciate who and what I am grateful for in my life.
It’s important to look at the holidays as just another day and to know I can ask for help in looking at my expectations. I value honesty, vulnerability and acceptance. There is nothing wrong with me if I am not full of cheer. It is more important that I accept myself where I am and give myself permission to be enough.
Set boundaries. They are necessary.
Let’s just be honest for a moment: The holidays are a time of celebration, but they are somehow always masked with anxiety and stress, especially around family. What do you do when your family causes you stress and anxiety, and you do not feel safe? Speaking from experience, it is okay to not spend the holidays with people who do not share your values. Even more so when it comes to navigating your mental health through this time of year.
I am often sad and full of grief, because as an LGBTQ person, I have had to distance myself from my family. Our views about my identity are not the same. It was very difficult in the early days of my mental health journey to recognize this feeling of grief because it was often masked by extreme loneliness. I lacked the skills I needed to believe I was worthy of boundaries, self-care and that my mental health mattered. I felt a sense of obligation to my family which meant having to push aside my real feelings to make everyone around me more comfortable.
I have learned with the support of my fellow travelers in the mental health community that I absolutely can (and owe it to myself to) take care of myself. This allows me to be more present for those who want to share this time of year together. This doesn’t mean I don’t see my family. Instead, I shorten the time I spend with them. I choose to not talk about certain topics and can leave the conversation if I’m getting uncomfortable. I stay connected to someone in my support system as if they are my “wingman.” Most importantly, I make sure I stay connected to my support system after I leave my family’s. Setting boundaries helps me to enjoy my family more.
Take care of yourself so you can be present. You are a gift.
When I first decided that sobriety was the next step of my healing journey, I was extra scared of holiday parties, get-togethers and just the stress and anxiety in general. I was scared that I was going to be the only one not drinking. I needed to spend these precious days with those who were also on the same journey as me. I learned that this was taking care of myself, and I was worth taking care of.
Over the years, the holidays began to be more about joy, connection, authenticity, the food, the lights, laughter, and forgiveness. In terms of gift-giving, there is no gift like the present moment. Mindfulness, meditation and physical wellness activities helped me to challenge shame and perfectionism. These all grounded me.
This year, try going for a walk when the anxiety kicks in, watch your favorite movie and take time for yourself. Staying connected to treatment and/or a support system is essential. When all else fails, reaching out and seeing how my friends are doing saves the day.
You are a gift to those in your life who love you and support you. And most importantly, don’t forget to get yourself a gift.