Are The Holidays Good For Mental Health?

The answer to that question can be an exceedingly complicated one, perhaps more so than most of us would be comfortable admitting. If it stresses you out to know that Thanksgiving is just around the corner, as well as the broader holiday season, you are far from alone in feeling that stress, distress, malaise, blue Christmas blues, or whatever you want to call them. Very, very far from alone, as a matter of fact.

According to a 2014 National Alliance on Mental Illness survey, approximately 64% of respondents living with a mental health condition reported having the symptoms of their condition made worse by the holidays. In a more recent survey taken during last year’s holiday season, the American Psychiatric Association found that Americans are five times more likely to say that their stress increases, rather than decreases, during the holiday season.

While some people view right now as the “most wonderful time of the year”, it’s not difficult to see why others view the holiday season as not being so wonderful. If you’re a member of this surprisingly not-so-uncommon club, here’s what you should know about coping with unwanted, unwelcome guests like anxiety, depression, or your uncle who spends too much time on Facebook.

How Holidays Affect Mental Health

A myriad of stressors can arise over the course of the holiday season which makes the most wonderful time of the year for some people, not so wonderful for others. Despite what Hallmark cards and Burl Ives choruses would lead you to believe, the holiday season isn’t always so hunky dory, nor is it always so holly or jolly.

Maybe circumstances have forced you to interact with immediate family and in-laws you dread seeing. Inversely, maybe the circumstances are making you feel mournful for a loved one you lost around the holiday season. Maybe rising inflation and economic anxieties are leaving you wondering how you’ll afford the gifts this year. 

Perhaps the whole season just hits you with a general sense of malaise; seasonal affective disorder impacts over ten million Americans each year, and usually tends to hit harder in climates with less daylight and sunlight (Boston University). So, there are plenty of valid reasons why your mental state might not feel so festive, holly, jolly, or thankful through the festivities. 

It’s okay to acknowledge and recognize the stressful emotional toll that the holidays may bring, if they aren’t a good time for you. These past few years have forced many Americans and people around the world to reckon with exceedingly more stressful holidays than usual, as they’ve had to contend with planning smaller, more cautious festivities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It’s always good to give gifts to express the care and gratitude you feel toward people you care about, but you will also want to ensure that you are offering yourself an appropriate level of care, grace, and gratitude. If you still haven’t internalized the importance of that, we’ve compiled a few more relevant data points from the APA that should stress it (no pun intended).

Holiday Mental Health Statistics

According to the American Psychiatric Association:

  • Younger adults are more likely than older adults to express anxiety around the holidays, especially with regard to family dynamics.
  • Roughly two in five (or 40%) of healthcare workers feel stressed about the possibility of working longer hours over the holiday season.
  • Over 1 in 3 Americans (or 38%) are anxious about the possibility of contracting COVID-19 at holiday functions.
  • Nearly half of all adults (47%) in America are worried about missing family members during the holiday season.
  • Approximately 54% of U.S. healthcare workers reported feeling a heightened sense of general stress through the holidays.
  • Nearly half of all Americans (46%) are concerned about their ability to afford gifts during the holidays.

Additionally, a survey backed by LendingTree and ValuePenguin unearthed more troubling findings regarding feelings of alienation and isolation around the holidays:

  • 55% of Americans struggle with loneliness through the holiday season
  • 76% of LGBTQIA+ respondents felt loneliness, often due to unsupportive family
  • 36% cited grief as causing their loneliness, while 37% cited seasonal depression
  • 41% more attributed their loneliness to not being around loved ones
  • 13% of Americans cited visiting a therapist to cope with their loneliness

Only 13%. That’s a far lower figure than ideal, and it’s not necessarily because Americans want to voluntarily skirt seeing a shrink; far too many people in this country simply can’t afford or access the level of mental healthcare they deserve. 

That same survey found that 58% of Americans weren’t satisfied with the level of mental health coverage offered by their insurance provider. Even out of the limited sample size, all of these figures point toward broader troubling trends, all collectively troubling the country over the holiday season.

Fortunately, there are a multitude of self-care strategies and coping skills available to proactively address these mental health issues head-on, and if you need further support, there are a number of affordable online resources available, regardless of your insurance provider.

Here are ten proactive steps you can consider to mitigate seasonal emotional distress during the holidays.

Holiday Mental Health Checklist

  • Validate your emotions: You don’t need to force yourself to feel festive if you genuinely aren’t. Feel whatever you’re authentically feeling, and feel free to express those feelings in a healthy way. 
  • Reach out to friends or loved ones: If you’re struggling with loneliness or isolation, don’t be afraid to confide in loved ones, support groups, or supportive, trustworthy people, wherever you’re able to find them.
  • Embrace new traditions: Seasons change, people can change, and so can seasonal traditions. If old traditions aren’t working out for you, keep your mind open to new possibilities.
  • Practice radical acceptance: Try your best to accept things and people as they are, even if you aren’t able to yet have your ideal holiday just yet. Practicing mindfulness meditation exercises on gratitude and loving-kindness can help you mentally reinforce this. 
  • Set a budget for your gifts: Planning ahead can significantly reduce the stress and overwhelm of the holidays. Determine how much money you can spend in advance, and stick to that budget as much as you can. Besides Black Friday sales, gift exchanges and homemade gifts can both save time and money.
  • Plan ahead in other ways: From meal-prepping to online shopping, to online scheduling, there is a multitude of ways you can save yourself from stress and last-minute scrambling.
  • Don’t be afraid to assert boundaries: It’s okay to say “no” to seeing toxic people you don’t want to see, or taking on extra holiday work when it isn’t necessary.
  • Practice healthy self-care habits: Healthy eating, adequate sleep, and routine physical activity can all contribute toward naturally elevating and uplifting your mood. Mindfulness meditations and breathing exercises have been clinically shown to naturally calm the parasympathetic nervous system. (Frontiers)
  • Take some alone time, if needed: If you have to calm down, soothing music, stargazing, and even just 15 minutes of alone time can all work wonders to ease your nerves.
  • Seek professional help, if needed: Despite your best efforts, you might still feel down. If negative emotional states persist no matter what you do, reach out to a trusted doctor, therapist, or mental health professional. If things start to escalate to a severe crisis point, we would emphatically implore you to reach out to crisis support resources like the 9-8-8 Help Line, Crisis Text Line, or the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Even if you feel lonely, we would like to stress that you aren’t alone. Even if there aren’t in-person therapy resources around your area, affordable, accessible, attainable online therapy providers are available.

Holiday Mental Health Resources

Affordable remote mental healthcare providers like Sesame can provide you with ample direct-to-patient care support from the comfort and safety of your own home. Read our full review to find out more about Sesame Care, and use the promo code “SESAME15” for 15% off all of their services. 

We hope you have a happy, healthy, and safe holiday season!

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Sarah Ryan
Sarah Ryan