Photo by Sandra Seitamaa on Unsplash

By Stephen Bitsoli, Sunshine Behavioral Health

Year after year, December after December, it’s like “Groundhog Day” is playing over and over in your head. You cannot get out of the holidays. They come around like a bad record.

If you avoid going to visit family, they are worried and have a miserable time. If you are anxious around friends, you get blamed for being a buzzkill. But you would never hear the end of it if you didn’t go out with them at all. It’s already going to be a heated and testy time. Either you don’t have family and wish you did, or you have a hard time hanging around with the same group of people all the time.

So how do you handle all of this while still staying sane? Here is some advice from mental health experts.

Make New Connections

The holidays are all about socializing, and you might feel let down when you are not involved or able to attend group gatherings. Or, you might dread seeing toxic family members who never miss an opportunity to push your buttons. Take this time to meet new friends. Join a club based on your interests. Tag along with a friend to a party where you don’t know many people and start conversations. Finding new people you enjoy spending time with gives you more options for companionship so you don’t feel forced to be around family or friends who make you feel bad.

Reestablish Relationships

The holidays are a great excuse to reconnect with people you’ve lost touch with, to check in and see how they’re doing. It’ll help you widen your social circle. You can both talk about holiday stress to blow off steam and reduce feelings of loneliness.

Stay Indoors and be Safe

Don’t be afraid to stay home for your mental health. If you have anxiety related to COVID-19 about going somewhere for a holiday social, chances are you would feel better canceling the plans. 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has tips to stay safe in communities at severe risk for COVID-19. These include to:

  • Avoid gatherings that are indoors.
  • Go to gatherings with fewer than three households in attendance.
  • Stay at gatherings for fewer than two hours.

If you feel pressured to attend a family gathering where you anticipate judgment, follow this advice from the NAMI: 

  • Know what works for you. If you’re in recovery and sober and know your family will be drinking at their holiday dinner, don’t feel pressured to go. If estranged from your family because of past trauma, you don’t owe them your presence. Your long-term mental health is more important than trying to please everyone else.
  • Practice controlled breathing. Taking a deep breath and holding it for several seconds can help reduce anxiety. Be prepared to use this technique whenever you feel triggered or otherwise uncomfortable at family gatherings.
  • Set boundaries. If you know your family will make jokes about your lack of success in relationships or comment about your weight, let them know you don’t plan to stick around for it. And if they do bring up topics you’ve warned them not to, follow through and leave the situation. You don’t have to put up with verbal abuse, even from your family.
  • Limit your time at family functions. Before you head in, plan to stay just two hours at the event. You might even have an excuse handy, like having to work the next day. Let everyone know your plan when you arrive, and stick to the timeframe you’ve planned. Alternatively, you could have a friend call you with a small but urgent “emergency” (like a lost pet) at a pre-arranged time. When you get the call, take it outside. Then let your family know something important has come up and you have to go.

As an adult, you choose who you spend time with. You don’t owe it to anyone to be their verbal punching bag. If spending time with someone leaves you feeling bad, or triggers behavior you’re trying to eliminate, reconsider it. 

If you can’t back out, employ some tactics to make it more manageable. Don’t sacrifice your mental health to make someone who doesn’t consider your needs feel better.