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Navigating the holidays: mental health challenges amidst festive cheer

by | Conscious Living, Print Articles, Summer 2023

December, with its sparkling lights, decorations and the promise of joyous celebrations, is a month that traditionally evokes warmth and togetherness. However, for those grappling with mental health issues or navigating challenging life events like death or divorce, the holiday season can be decidedly uncheerful.

Let’s face it, between the tasks, celebrations and family obligations, remaining jolly all the time is a very tall order and the pressure to do so can, in itself, trigger anxiety.

Whether or not one celebrates Christmas, the juxtaposition of festive cheer can become a poignant reminder of personal struggles, triggering emotional distress and a complex array of emotions, amplifying feelings of isolation and inadequacy.

And once stress is at its peak, it’s very difficult to stop and regroup and, in this case, prevention is definitely better than cure.

The contradiction of festive cheer: A double-edged sword

The cultural and societal significance of December often permeates every aspect of life whether we like it or not. Shops are adorned with decorations, Christmas ads are on TV, Christmas songs are on every radio station and all around us people are making plans for the holidays.

Sadly, for many individuals, this festive backdrop becomes a double-edged sword, amplifying the challenges they face in their mental health journey.

  1. Isolation amidst the gathering

The emphasis on togetherness and family during the holidays can intensify feelings of isolation for those who may not have close familial connections or who have experienced the loss of family members.

The societal expectation of joyful gatherings can inadvertently deepen the sense of loneliness for individuals who find themselves on the outskirts of the celebration.

  1. Comparison and inadequacy

The pervasive nature of holiday celebrations can also trigger a sense of inadequacy as individuals compare their own lives to the seemingly idyllic portrayals in media and cultural narratives.

The pressure to conform to societal norms of happiness and familial bliss can create internal turmoil for those already navigating the complexities of mental health challenges.

  1. Nostalgia and grief: The ghosts of holidays past

For individuals who have experienced significant losses, whether through death or divorce, the holidays often serve as poignant reminders of happier times.

Navigating the season without loved ones can intensify feelings of grief, triggering a complex interplay of nostalgia and sorrow that can be overwhelming.

  1. Financial stress: Navigating the pressure of gift-giving and entertainment

The holiday season often comes with financial demands, including the expectation of gift-giving and, very often, going out for meals or drinks.

For individuals facing financial challenges, this aspect of the holidays can be a significant stressor, contributing to feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Managing expectations and finding meaningful, budget-friendly ways to celebrate become crucial for preserving mental wellbeing.

Identifying triggers: A key to managing mental health during the holidays

Recognising the triggers that contribute to emotional distress is a crucial step in managing mental health during the holiday season. By understanding the factors that amplify stress and emotional challenges, individuals can implement targeted strategies to navigate this period more effectively.

  1. Social comparison and expectations

Trigger: The pervasive societal expectations of joyous family gatherings and the cultural portrayal of the ‘perfect’ holiday season.

Strategy: Practice self-compassion and challenge the notion of perfection. Establishing realistic expectations for oneself is paramount. It’s okay to recognise personal limitations and set boundaries on social engagements or festive commitments. Prioritise self-care and communicate openly with friends and family about your needs and boundaries.

  1. Isolation and loneliness

Trigger: Feeling left out or isolated amid the emphasis on communal celebrations and family gatherings.

Strategy: Seek out alternative forms of connection. Engage with community events, reach out to friends, or volunteer for charitable activities. Virtual connections can also provide a sense of community for those physically distanced, so make an effort to reach out more during the holidays if you have loved ones far away.

3.Grief and loss

Trigger: Memories of loved ones and past holidays spent together, or the absence of familiar traditions can intensify feelings of grief.

Strategy: For those undergoing significant life changes, such as divorce or the loss of a loved one, embracing the idea of creating new traditions can be a powerful coping mechanism. Create new rituals that honour the memory of loved ones. Share stories, light a candle, or participate in activities that celebrate the positive impact those individuals had on your life.

  1. Financial strain

Trigger: The financial demands of holiday shopping and gift-giving can significantly contribute to stress.

Strategy: Set a realistic budget for holiday expenses and communicate openly with friends and family about financial constraints. Consider alternative gift-giving strategies, such as home-made gifts or experiences that don’t involve significant financial expenditure.

  1. Pressure to conform

Trigger: External pressure to conform to societal expectations of happiness and celebration.

Strategy: Practise assertiveness and communicate your needs to friends and family. Establish boundaries and prioritise self-care, even if it means stepping back from certain social obligations.

Cultivating a mental health-focused holiday season

While the challenges of the holiday season are real, it’s essential to recognise that the journey toward better mental health is ongoing and unique to each individual.

Cultivating a mental health-focused holiday season involves intentional self-care practices and a willingness to prioritise wellbeing over societal expectations.

  • Mindful reflection: Embracing your emotional landscape

Take time for mindful reflection on your emotions and acknowledge the complexities you may be experiencing. Embracing your emotional landscape without judgment is a crucial step in fostering self-awareness and resilience.

  • Setting boundaries: Protecting your mental space

Establishing clear boundaries is essential for protecting your mental space during the holiday season. Communicate openly with friends and family about your needs and limitations and don’t hesitate to decline assertively invitations or activities that may contribute to stress.

  • Alternative celebrations: Redefining traditions

Consider alternative ways to celebrate that align with your current emotional state and wellbeing. This might involve creating new traditions, opting for intimate gatherings, or even spending the holiday season in a way that resonates with your personal values.

  • Seeking support: Connecting with others

If the holiday season exacerbates feelings of loneliness, reach out to supportive friends, family, or mental health professionals. Community resources and support groups can provide a sense of connection and understanding during challenging times.

  • Self-care practices: Nurturing your wellbeing

Prioritise self-care practices that nurture your wellbeing. This might include activities such as meditation, exercise, spending time in nature, or engaging in hobbies that bring joy and relaxation.

  • Expressing gratitude: Focusing on positivity

Cultivate a mindset of gratitude by focusing on positive aspects of your life. This intentional shift in perspective can counterbalance negative emotions and contribute to a more positive overall outlook.

Last, but certainly not least, as we navigate the festive landscape of December, it’s imperative to approach the holiday season with compassion – both for ourselves and others.

And by identifying triggers, implementing targeted strategies and prioritising mental health, individuals can transform the holiday season into a period of self-discovery, resilience and, ultimately, healing.

Yael Geffen is the CEO and shareholder of Sotheby’s International Realty, South Africa. She grew up in a real estate dynasty established by her grandmother, Aida, and, prior to joining the family business in 2009, she acquired extensive real estate marketing, brand building and business development experience in the United States.

Yael is also an accomplished public and motivational speaker and her broadcast experience includes hosting and producing her own radio show from 2013 to 2017. Yael is a sought after Life and Business Strategy Advisor and is the 2020 winner of Standard Bank’s prestigious Top Woman in Property Award.

Yael is a mental health advocate and has been chosen to represent South Africa as a speaker for the World Leaders Summit in November 2021.