All is not ‘merry and bright’ during the holiday season – and that’s okay

Submitted by the CMHA

When you listen to crooner Andy Williams singing the Christmas classic, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” it’s easy to think all is merry and bright during the holidays, but that isn’t always the case. The festive season is a difficult time for many people. However there are strategies they can employ to preserve their mental wellbeing.

In a survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a Virginia-based organization dedicated to improving the lives of those affected by mental illness, almost 65 percent of respondents with a diagnosed mental illness found the holidays made their condition worse.

Even those without mental health issues found the holiday season challenging. They said they experienced feelings of sadness or dissatisfaction. The majority of respondents said they experienced financial stress and pressure and faced unrealistic expectations. Half of respondents remembered happier times in their lives and compared them unfavourably with the present.

The demands of the holiday season — including the pressure to spend money, cook, bake, clean, socialize and make the season as festive as possible — can be overwhelming.

Bev Gutray, former CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association, B.C. Division, says it is easy to feel distressed during the holidays. “Sometimes it’s about letting go of traditions and finding creative ways to focus on what’s most important to you,” she says. “The key is to keep it simple and remember to make your mental health a priority.”

Thankfully, mental health experts have outlined many ways to do that.

To start, prepare for the holidays well in advance. If you do your decorating, cooking, shopping and other tasks weeks beforehand you will be better able to enjoy time with family, friends and colleagues when the holiday season arrives.

Also, be as organized as possible in your preparations, which requires making a list of tasks and crossing out each when you have completed it.

Don’t feel you need to prepare on your own either. Family members can help with decorating the house, wrapping presents and even writing greeting cards.

Finances are a big concern for many families, especially in these trying times. But you can take steps to curtail spending. Set a budget for holiday shopping and stick to it. You don’t need to buy a present for every person in your family.  Instead, put all the names in the hat and have each family member pick just one name. This way, each family member buys just one present. You could do something similar with a group of friends. Keep in mind that, in many cases, a phone call or a visit would mean more to someone than a gift.

Increasing the flow of people through your life during the holiday season would also be a boost to your mental health. Connect with neighbours and invite them to family gatherings or join them at community events.

Many people benefit from helping others during the holidays, by volunteering at a local food bank or by donating to a charity that helps people in need. Knowing that you’re making a difference in the lives of people who are less fortunate than you could lift your spirits.

It is easy to eat and drink too much during the holiday season but you would be wise to exercise some restraint;  alcohol is a depressant and copious amounts of sugar can make you feel lethargic. It’s important to maintain an exercise regimen as well. Even a small amount of exercise helps your state of mind.

It is important to be easy on yourself. Don’t worry about living up to expectations that come with the holiday season. Don’t internalize the message conveyed in holiday movies, songs and greeting cards. In short, don’t preoccupy yourself with how things should be.

“There’s a lot of cultural pressure during the holidays,” says Dr. Ken Duckworth, a leading mental health expert and medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “We tend to compare ourselves with these idealized notions of perfect families and perfect holidays.” But the reality is, most people have less than perfect holiday gatherings.

For example, people who have recently lost a loved one tend to struggle during the holiday season, with its emphasis on family and togetherness. But that is understandable — and there is no reason to feel guilty about it.. Talking about the deceased person with others could help ease the pain.

Above all else, never lose sight of what the holiday season is truly about — sharing, loving and spending time with people you care about. If you keep that in mind throughout the month, you are more likely to start the New Year filled with good cheer.

The information provided is not a substitute for professional advice. If you need advice, please consult a qualified health care professional. For further information or if you want to access our services at CMHA, please call 1-800-493-8271 or visit our web site at

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