Coping with Mental Health Struggles During the Holidays

Nov 15, 2022 | Patients

by Brent Hearn • 

It’s hard to believe, but the season is already upon us. The end of the year is a flurry of holidays, both sacred and secular, that give us reason to be thankful for our blessings, enjoy cherished time with family and friends, and celebrate time-honored traditions.

There’s a flip side to that (solid chocolate) holiday coin as well that’s not so festive, and it goes beyond the typical complaints about the less-than-joyful aspects of the holiday season—the expansion of waistlines, the stretching of bank accounts, and those hard-to-love family members. (Looking at you, Uncle Daryl.)

Sadly, for many, the holiday season isn’t a time of celebration but of struggle. According to a survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 64% of people with mental illness said the holidays made their conditions worse.

Though that’s a sobering statistic, there’s good news. There are steps those facing mental health issues can take to lessen the stress the season brings.

Set Boundaries

The holidays can bring with them a host of additional stressors and obligations. Know your limits and don’t be afraid to set boundaries with others. You don’t have to buy or attend all the things; the world will continue to turn if you say “no.”

Watch What You Eat and Drink

This one is obviously no fun to hear. After all, the holidays are a time when many of us give ourselves permission to let our hair down a little (and our belts out a notch). While this is certainly understandable, it’s important to remember that a healthy diet can pay dividends for your mental health. This is due to a nutritional psychiatry concept known as the gut-brain axis. (This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed nutritional psychiatry. Check out our article “Spring Cleaning for Your Mental Health.”)

We’re not saying you shouldn’t enjoy the holiday bounty, but indulgences should be the exception, not the rule. Eating well is no cure-all, of course. Mental health is a complex subject affected by many variables. That said, a diet consisting mostly of unprocessed foods like whole grains, vegetables, and fresh fruit, can work for your mental health instead of against it.

As a depressant, alcohol has its own pitfalls, particularly if you struggle with dependency or if you’re taking medications that can be affected by imbibing. Don’t drink if you’re feeling stressed, depressed, or down. Talk to your physician to learn their recommendations for your consumption of (or abstinence from) alcohol.

Touch Some Grass—and Your Toes

This one can be tricky if you live in an area with extreme weather conditions. That said, if you are able to get outside, do so. There are many documented benefits to spending time in nature. Either way, though—whether outside or inside—make time for some physical activity and get those stress-reducing hormones churning!

Looking Out for Friends and Family Who Are Struggling

Even if you’re coping fine with holiday stressors, you may have friends or family members who aren’t. It’s important to be sensitive to their mental health needs as well. Colorado’s Community Reach Center has some great tips on how to be supportive. A few of our favorites:

  • Be thoughtful with your invitations.
    The idea here is to meet people where they are. A celebration for some may be an anxiety-inducing nightmare for others. If a friend refuses a party invitation because they’re wary of crowds, invite them for some one-on-one fellowship. A chat over hot cocoa or a quiet lunch may be the perfect way to celebrate the season and make those who might otherwise be left out feel included.
  • Allow people to bow out gracefully.
    If you’ve ever been shamed for leaving an event early—or so overwhelmed with the thought of too much social stimuli that you opted out of going at all—you know it’s no fun. What may seem like good-natured ribbing may only serve to reinforce the “otherness” of one’s mental health/social challenge. Be understanding and supportive if someone decides not to attend an event—even if they RSVP in the affirmative—or makes an early exit.
  • Reach out regularly.
    Just be there for those struggling—and let them know you’re there for them—consistently. A supportive network can help with their recovery process, and a little bit can go a long way.

Let’s all remember to take care of ourselves and each other during this holiday season. What better way to be a thoughtful gift-giver than by showing sensitivity to the mental health needs of your loved ones?

If you or someone you love is in mental distress, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, or chat at, to reach a trained counselor.


National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): The Most Difficult Time of the Year: Mental Health During the Holidays

NAMI California: Maintaining Mental Health During the Holiday Season (and a Pandemic)

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): Mental Health and the Holiday Blues

Mayo Clinic: Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for coping

The New York Times: How Food May Improve Your Mood

NAMI California: Mental Health Benefits of Nature

Community Reach Center: How to Be Supportive for Someone Struggling with Mental Illness This Holiday Season

988: 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline