4 Steps for A Mentally Healthy Holiday

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As a mental health advocate who has worked in recovery centers, hospices and schools all over the country I get a little bit of fresh vomit (with its hints of vinegar, trauma and grief) in my mouth when someone (usually gorgeous, usually super wealthy) on Instagram says “this year, just practice acceptance” as if their photo from an exclusive resort is an example of their acceptance rather than their escapism. As if their #gratitude can teach you what some of the monks I’ve sat with have spent their whole lives trying to find.

Here’s the very truth of this time of year. Ready? Holidays are beautiful. Sure. But family (even the good kind) is hard! They know how to push your buttons. For Christ's sakes, they installed them. Let’s not ruin the season by pretending we’re not going to have some negative feelings over the next few weeks.

As the rest of the world is busy selling you something this time of year, I thought I’d offer up some things you can do without shopping that will help this holiday feel a bit more manageable.  

Here are four steps you can take – one is a process and three are practices that assist that process – starting today to get ready for the holiday season with your family.

1) Do your best to set expectations based in reality.

I know you want the picture perfect holiday.  You want the camera to zoom in past the snow-globe to the window of a house lit like a galaxy, to a full table, dad at one end with an understanding smile on his face while your fiancé puts stars in your cousin’s eyes and the little ones shoot around like comets. Oh my, love, who sold you the idea that a happy and meaningful holiday comes from matching a movie made in 1990?  Some of us will get that, sure, but I promise they won’t be happier than those of us who are with friends instead of family or who are reading prayers at a cemetery instead of singing carols. Holidays are created to celebrate shared values – not shared visuals of how those values ought to be portrayed.

The first step to a mentally healthy holiday is setting the realistic expectation for what it’s going to look like. If your mom always burns the ham, and your uncle always drinks too much, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do it again this year. If you have felt sad every year since your brother died, I’d be willing to bet some of that sadness might come back this year. Bright star that you are, one of the best things you can do is accept these probabilities rather than try to prevent them. Moving into these experiences as truths to witness rather than fears to avoid allows us to prepare for them. So put on your big kid pants, we’ve got work to do.

  • Action Step: Write out a list of the things that let you down each year. Note how it all fits on a little piece of paper, all neat like that. You got this.

2) List your needs.

In keeping with tip #1, If you’re someone who goes crazy when you skip a workout don’t expect that to change just because you’re surrounded with family. We all have the little things we need and it’s imperative that we know what they are so we can actually go after them. And I do mean go after them: no one is going to give you time to take care of yourself. No one is going to ask you if you have had your run yet today. You’ve got to take that, or it won’t happen.

  • Action Step: Look at your daily routine. What are things you do for you and only you? What are the things that bring you joy and peace? Write down 5. Keep it with you. You won’t get all of them every day, but maybe you can get 2 out of 5, and those two will help you avoid a meltdown.

3) Go Undercover to Create Space.

Things go wrong when we don’t have time to recharge or feel our feelings. Family time is wonderful, but it’s usually not restorative or quiet. With the pressures of expectations on us it can be hard to carve out time for yourself. Here’s how I do it.

  • Honor the morning. My morning routine is mission critical. I’ll tell folks I’m getting up 30 minutes after I’ve actually set my alarm so I have time to do some stretching, meditation and journaling before I see everyone.

  • Be the Helpful Guy! Aunt D forgot the secret ingredient? Jimmy needs to be picked up from the train? Out of ice? Volunteering to stay behind and clean or go out and grab something (or someone) is a great way to sneak out of the house for a mind-clearing drive.

  • Every bathroom has a seat. Use it. Pull out Headspace on your phone and do a 1 minute meditation. Or just splash water on your face. Find your quiet and get the hell back out there. No one will know you’re gone, but my look at you all glowed up.

  • There is no price on personal space. If funds allow, it is always worth it to pony up the extra bit for your own room or an extra rental car. Space is space. Money can be replaced.

4) Design a Game Plan (podcasts, movie lists, activities… take the debate out)

A lot of family tension comes during times of indecision (what to watch? Where to take the kids?) and downtime… come prepared with things you can do to fill those voids with peace, quiet and little bunnies.

  • Bring a list of family friendly podcasts cued up on your phone to give everyone a share experience on long car drives. Same thing with movies. But ultimately, hey, if they’ve picked something… just go with it.

  • Tired of answering questions? Come armed with questions that take the pressure off of you…. this year my question was “if you were a professional criminal, what would your specialty be?”

  • Do some research about the area you’re going to, be the hero who takes all of the kids to the world’s largest wheel of cheese, get mom and dad to the home of some long-dead artist so they’re out of the house for a while. The more work you do ahead of time coming up with ideas the less time there will be for the dull quiet moments in which anxieties, doubts and fights erupt.

Mike Rosen is a mental health advocate, poet and yoga teacher. Find more of his work here.

Mike Rosen