December 23, 2017 8:16 pm
Updated: December 23, 2017 8:19 pm

5 ways to keep your mental health on track over the holidays

WATCH: How to reduce stress during the holiday season


The holidays can be a stressful time for anyone.

For some it’s the pressure of finding that last minute gift, for others it’s too much — or not enough — time with family.

And for some it can bring existing challenges with mental health and substance use to the forefront.

On Saturday, Dr. Heather Fulton, psychologist with the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addictions, joined CKNW’s Jill Bennett Show to offer tips on how to handle the holiday pressure cooker.

LISTEN: Managing stress over the holidays

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One of the biggest things you can do, regardless of what’s stressing you out, is to avoid cutting back on self-care, said Fulton.

“[It] kind of sets the foundation for being able to cope with stressors, being able to think flexibly, problem solve.”

Fulton said when it’s crunch time sleep, exercise and a healthy diet are the first things to go for many people.

READ MORE: 10 simple tips to ensure a stress-free holiday

When those things fall by the wayside, small stresses can quickly become big ones, and we’re more likely to react emotionally or snap at others, she said.

Keeping your focus on self-care can help you handle whatever else the holidays throw at you, Fulton said.

Setting realistic boundaries

Not everyone can do everything. It’s a fact, but one that can get swept away in an effort to make everyone happy as we over-commit to activities or favours.

“Recognize that when you’re saying yes to something, you’re actually saying no to something else,” said Fulton.

For example, agreeing to go to one more holiday party can mean saying no to spending a relaxing night at home with your partner or family.

READ MORE: What stress can do to your brain during the holiday season

Similarly, you can try and phase the words “should” and “must” out of your holiday vocabulary in favour of “prefer to,” Fulton said.

Doing so can help take the catastrophe out of the holidays. For example, maybe you really can’t find that “perfect” gift — but you can find something that will make the recipient happy.

Recognizing you don’t have complete control can help you keep things in perspective, she said.

Substance use

For many, the holidays are a time to eat, drink and be merry. But heavy drinking — and other substance use — can sometimes send things down the wrong path.

“Sometimes with friends and family members, that sort of using environment might have almost been viewed as a Christmas tradition,” said Fulton.

READ MORE: How to avoid a meltdown when travelling with kids over the holidays

Suggesting other, less substance-driven activities to friends and family is one way to relieve the pressure, said Fulton, while having a non-substance using support person can be another.

And if you are someone who struggles with substance abuse issues, don’t be afraid to remove yourself from a holiday situation that is testing your limits, she said.

“People shouldn’t feel afraid to do that. It’s most important that they stay safe.”

Feeling depressed

The winter blues are a real thing, and they’re not something to be ignored or brushed off, said Fulton.

She said it’s important to be gentle with yourself over the holidays, particularly if you’re coping with a loss — but also if you’re alone for other reasons.

READ MORE: Turning to technology to cope with holiday blues

“It’s okay to feel sad during this holiday season,” she said.

Fulton said it’s good to try and avoid self criticism for feeling depressed. But she said if you’ve had a loss or crisis in your life, you shouldn’t criticize yourself or feel guilty for feeling good during the holidays either.

“Often people might introduce a new special tradition, say a special picture or candles, introduce people to a tradition that maybe you used to do with [someone you’ve lost].”

Ask for help

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and recognize that early intervention can get the best results, said Fulton.

For many people, the natural inclination is to leave issues until they develop into an emergency or crisis, she said. Dealing with them before they reach that level can help you manage seasonal stress.

READ MORE: The holidays can make mental health problems worse. Here’s how to manage

Fulton said people shouldn’t be afraid to try different mental health or therapy options that are available on for size, and can treat them as an experiment.

“Just because you go to one session doesn’t mean you have to go to another session.”

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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