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Four Ways the Holidays Can Affect Your Mental Health

It's that time of year again when the holidays are rapidly approaching. Now is the time when people are beginning to change their radio stations to those that are playing holiday music throughout the days and nights. Stores are setting up their displays as shoppers eagerly begin making plans for what's to come. New traditions are being formed while people are preparing for old ones with excitement as they think back to previous years with fondness. Thoughts and feelings of gratitude, appreciation and thanks are beginning to consume their minds and take over their social media pages. Gifts are being purchased for loved ones and charitable donations are being made to help those in need. This is also a time when many of us are struggling with emotional battles. Below are four ways the holidays can impact our mental health:

1) Stress: The holiday season is a time when many people experience an increase in stress. Sources vary from financial worries to busy travel to elaborate meal plans to family conflict. If your stress is caused by added expenses that may not be within your budget, give yourself permission to only spend what you feel comfortable with. Manage expectations of family members and friends by agreeing on a gift budget. If you are hosting dinner, ask others to contribute to the meal and feel free to make the meal a little bit smaller - who needs dessert anyway? It's more than likely it will just end up as table decor anyway. If travel costs are high, maybe opt to drive instead of fly. And don't be afraid to seek out community programs that provide meals and gifts to families in need - they are there to help. If you don't feel like you have enough time to get everything done, try to do as much as you can in advance. Go shopping during off-hours or purchase gifts online. Cook what you can ahead of time and save time from washing dishes by using disposable items where you can. If you're feeling anxious about potential family conflict, set some boundaries and be assertive. Pick up the phone and try to work out disagreements ahead of time. Request that certain conversation topics be avoided during meals.

One final source of stress that is often forgotten is the misperception that the holidays are a happy time for everybody when really that's just not true. The reality is that this is a hard time of year for many, many people. It's so easy to get lost in our own holiday spirit and forget that there are people who don't have happy families (or families at all), money to buy gifts for their loved ones or even a home to celebrate in (quite possibly without a home to even live in). The holidays can bring up painful memories for many. Society and media outlets constantly send the message that everybody is supposed to feel happy at this time - that can cause a disconnect between how many people are being told to feel and how they are actually feeling. If this is something you experience, please know you are not alone. If this does not describe you or your family, please remember that there are people out there who are struggling. Rather than assuming everybody is in the mood to celebrate, please be mindful, sensitive and supportive of those who are not.

2) Family: Many families include a mix of love and compassion along with conflict and drama. The holidays are often one of the few times throughout the year when entire families make a commitment to spend time together all at once. This can be both exciting and anxiety-provoking. Simple, everyday family challenges can seem magnified during this time when paired with the stress discussed above. Try to focus on the value of those relationships and remember the real reason you all decided to get together.

3) Food! Who doesn't love food? Well I know there are people who don't but I sure do (and I know I'm not alone)! The holidays are a time when excessive eating definitely occurs. The tastes, the smells, the comfort- what can I say? This is a time when many of us eat a LOT. It's important to remember that what and how much we choose to eat and drink can have a significant impact on how well our minds and bodies are able to function. Certain foods are linked to mental health issues such as increased symptoms of depression and decreased self-esteem. Although we often look forward to some delicious meals during the holiday season, try to limit those to the actual holiday celebrations. Instead of a month-long binge, try to follow recommended nutritional guidelines in between each major event. Also, try to limit alcohol consumption and drink lots of water. Drinking binges can be associated with increased symptoms of depression and anxiety, can lead to angry outbursts, and can have both short and long-term consequences including but not limited to harming meaningful relationships, legal problems, health issues and job performance. If you do choose to drink, do so responsibly.

4) Gratitude: Thanksgiving is a time when people often reflect on their lives and express gratitude for the things they are fortunate to have. This can promote mental health benefits in a number of ways. When people show gratitude, they focus more on the value of what they have which often amplifies their appreciation. Negative thoughts and emotions including anger, jealousy, resentment and regret tend to dissipate. We often have a changed or new-found attitude about our personal situations, which can foster an increased sense of self-worth. Things we frequently take for granted are seen in a new light. No matter what your situation is, I would encourage all of you to try and find a few positive things in your lives to reflect on no matter how small you believe them to be. You're worth it.

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