Navigating the Holidays and Mental Health


By Courtney Smith

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The holidays are supposed to be a time of joy, family, friends, and giving. Although everyone has their own unique traditions, one common theme in most all celebrations involves food. Food is essential to nourishing our bodies- something we all know- but it is easier said than done to pick and enjoy foods for those who struggle with body image, eating disorders, exercise compulsions, anxiety, depression, and other mental health diagnoses. The following guide is designed to help those who personally struggle with the things listed above or for their loved ones seeking to support them.

First, Debunking the Myths

There is an abundance of myths that are associated with food and/or mental illness. These misunderstandings are often highlighted by our culture. Winter break barely begins before gyms are advertising their New Year’s resolution discounted plans and new diets are springing up on social media. Myths surrounding food, exercise, body image, and mental health are not always commonly known and can be detrimental to your or your loved one’s health when navigating the holidays. The following are a few common myths and the truth behind them.

#1: Carbohydrates are Bad

Each macronutrient does something important for our bodies. This includes carbs! Carbohydrates are converted to glucose in our bodies. Glucose is the main fuel! Without carbs, you aren’t fueling your brain. Carbs are often depicted as the enemy, whether it’s a Keto diet ad on Pinterest or a weight loss video on Youtube. Low-carb diets are even changing our restaurants, with most now being able to swap out buns for either low-carb or carb-free options. As an individual ages and/or with certain medical conditions, the body may need more/less carbs for optimal function. That being said, for the average young adult carbs are not the bad guy and are no different on Christmas or Hanukkah than any other day of the year.

#2: Exercising Should be Everyone’s New Year’s Resolution

This myth comes in many forms. Whether you personally jump on the diet train every year only to “fail” or “give up” a few weeks in, notice the constant gym advertisements during the holidays, or believe that everyone would be better off if they started working out- it’s important for you to hear this. Exercising when done in a balanced way isn’t an issue, but not everyone needs to be picking up a membership come January. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), 90-95% of college students that are diagnosed with an eating disorder have a gym facility they belong to. Additionally, there is a major link between exercise compulsion and various forms of eating disorders. The fact is, exercising is not helpful for all people to do at all points in their life. Even if you are someone who does not have an eating disorder, if the gym is not mentally helpful for you, seek help and pair down the workout sessions. No weight goal is worth being mentally unfit. 

#3: The Holidays are Joyous to All

While I hope everyone who reads this loves the holidays and has an amazing time celebrating, the fact is that the holidays simply aren’t amazing for everyone. Individuals who have anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, and other mental health diagnoses can struggle during this time. Also, the holidays can bring up memories and loss for those who have lost loved ones. It’s important to spread kindness and empathy during this time. If someone seems more bummed out, stressed, or just not themselves- reach out or lend an ear without judgement. It can go a long way to be understanding. 

#4: People Should Always be Able to Help Themselves

In an ideal world, we would all be perfectly healthy and happy. This isn’t an ideal world! Helping others is a part of being human and, although you may not know everything about what someone is going through, trying to be empathetic and helpful goes a long way. If you are struggling and feel guilty for not being able to do it on your own, here is your sign that you don’t have to. Therapists, friends, family, doctors, and even online resources all are here to help you. Feelings of sadness, guilt, pain, and anxiety shouldn’t be dealt with alone just as joy is rarely celebrated solo. We don’t get to choose every experience or emotion that comes our way. People cannot always “sleep it off” or “just go get help” because our minds and feelings are much more complex. Knowing that you deserve help and/or people can’t always fly solo will help you help others and yourself.

Coping Skills & Advice

Set Boundaries Ahead of Time

No matter what or who you’re worried about, setting boundaries ahead of time can help you speak up without feeling awkward or guilty in the moment. Know that you have the right to be treated with respect and the right to not feel guilty for asking for it. If you need to set a boundary with someone you’re close to, ask to talk in person and make sure to have an idea of what to say beforehand so you can keep the communication open and not one sided. If the person on the receiving end feels attacked or off guard, they may not be as receptive. Here’s an example of what you can do if you were setting a boundary about body comments with a family member:

“Hey (insert name), I wanted to talk to you about something. I’m excited to be off of school and home with you for the holidays and wanted to let you know that I’d rather not hear any comments regarding by body the next few weeks. They just aren’t helpful to me and, even when they’re well intended, I get anxious because of them. I just want to enjoy the break and spend quality time with everyone without worrying about my appearance or what others are thinking. Thank you for being understanding.”

The example above is a simple example that can be altered and/or used as a guide for setting a boundary with someone close to you. Keeping it focused on “I” statements allows the other person to not feel as though you’re attacking them but also clearly expresses how you feel. Mentioning the good things you’re excited for, happy about, and okay with are all ways to bring positivity into the conversation. Maybe a parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, or grandparent has a history of saying and bringing up things that aren’t helpful to your mental health. Whether it is about a past event, food, appearance, or even a huge exam right around the corner- it is okay to set a boundary ahead of time. If it is someone you do not know as well, even creating some distance (i.e. not sitting next to them at holiday dinner) is a less involved way to set a boundary, Chances are you’ll feel better for doing it. 

Have a Plan

Depending on the severity of the trigger or thing that is bothering you, it is a good idea to have a plan written down before you anticipate exposure to the unpleasant experience. While a handwritten plan is helpful because it gives you something tangible in that moment, it is also okay to use your phone notes. Include things that are specific to you such as what emotions and events usually lead to your needing of a plan (warning signs), list of five things that make you happy or are enjoyable that you can either do or think about, a place you can go to (if applicable, ex: Lucky Lab) that makes you relaxed, two to three people you can talk to, and one thing that is worth living for or your greatest value. Having a plan in advance to look back on during a troubling time can be helpful in pulling yourself out of it. It can also be a good tool to share with family/support system if you are comfortable. If you have a therapist, dietitian, psychiatrist, or other professional you can ring, write their number down as well.

Self-Care Before, During, and After

Self-care should be a part of your daily life, even if it is in small ways! Especially if the holidays are a challenging time for you, try and incorporate self-care before, during, and after a hard days or events. Taking care of yourself doesn’t have to be extravagant- listening to your favorite song, petting your dog, calling a long-distance friend, taking a bath, and even taking a nap are all examples of self-care. Find things that work for you and do them regularly. If you need something a little more or want to break your self-care cycle, invite your mom to get mani-pedis or go see a movie by yourself or with your closest friend. Write down a few of your go-to ideas so they can be easily remembered if you’re having a rough day.

For Support Systems: Being Understanding

Support systems for those with mental illness or going through a particularly hard time are extremely important, but it isn’t always easy to know what to do or say. Slipping up can be embarrassing and do more harm than good, but saying nothing at all can also be hurtful. As a supporter you may also feel some of their pain, too. Here is some advice.

Not Sure? Ask.

You can’t help if you don’t know how to help. Asking your loved one ahead of time what best supports them, what they need from you, or what does not help are all topics to get you started. Talking about it ahead of time is the easiest way and chances are anxiety/tension will not be as high, but asking in the moment is also okay. Don’t expect yourself to know everything or do everything perfectly, but also be sure to ask. Here’s an example:

“Hey (insert name), I wanted to ask you what I can do to help your anxiety this week. Let me know if there are things I can do or say ahead of time or in the moment to support you.”

Depending on your relationship, you might be doing better or know more than you think you do.

Get Educated

If your loved one has a mental illness, get educated about it! If your only exposure and education has been by them or pop culture, chances are you still have a ways to go. Movies, fictional books, and television often sensationalize issues and miss out on key details and if you only know about things through your loved one, chances are you’re still missing out on valuable information. Look up trustworthy websites, articles, books, and podcasts. Learning about someone’s mental illness not only shows that you care but it can also help you just by learning more about it. Here are a few resources to get you started:

Eating Disorders: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org, Life Without Ed and/or Goodbye Ed, Hello Me by Jenni Schaeffer, and @laurathomasphd on Instagram.

Anxiety: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml, Anxiety Happens by John P. Forsyth, PhD and Georg H. Eifert, PhD, and @anxiety_wellbeing on Instagram.

Depression: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/depression/index.shtml, https://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/helping-someone-with-depression.htm

PTSD: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml, https://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/helping-someone-with-ptsd.htm

Listen Without Judgement

Although it can be hard to not have your own opinions and judgements, it is a critical part of being in someone’s support system. You may want to practically shake someone who is insistent that their body isn’t beautiful or who doesn’t want to get out of bed, but they are having their own experiences in their own life/body. Listening without judgement does not mean you cannot offer them help or advice- and you should always intervene when you think they may harm themselves- but being empathetic is an important skill to being a good listener. Instead of “Just get out of bed! You can’t be that miserable,” try something like, “Is there anything I can do or anything you would like to talk about? If you would like to be alone, maybe you could help me make cookies/run an errand/etc. later. I’d love to have you.” If they aren’t in the mood to talk you can always sit next to them and read a book or bring them their favorite beverage and exit the room. Showing you care is usually not forcing your opinions and judgements onto someone else- even when it is difficult. When talking to them about how they are feeling, ask questions and show support. Ask for clarification, what they need from you, and if your responses are helpful to them. Don’t be offended if they aren’t! It is a learning process and some days are different than others. Being a good listener is a key to being a good supporter, but even this skill may take time. 

Final Thoughts

The holidays can be the best of times and the worst of times. Understanding and having plans, boundaries, and empathy for yourself is vital to ensuring that your time off goes as smooth as possible. For loved ones, non-judgmental communication and education are essential to making sure you are the best supporter you can be. Still, no matter who you are in the relationship at any given time, self-care should be a part of your life so you can keep taking care of yourself. These tips are by no means a comprehensive list but should be a step in the right direction. Here’s to taking care of ourselves and those we love this holiday season.