How To Keep Your Mental Health in Check During the Holidays

Girl sitting in snow globe
Illustration: Vanessa Lovegrove​
Nov 12, 2021

The Story

It’s the most wonderful time of the year…and the most stressful. 

Tell me about it. Do I have the holiday blues?

‘Tis the season…to have temporary feelings of anxiety and depression. The holiday blues is similar to seasonal affective disorder (aka SAD), and it’s more common...and sadder (had to)...than you’d think. A National Alliance on Mental Illness study found that 64% of people with mental illness say the holidays make their conditions worse. Not trying to be the Grinch here. But more like Rudolph shining a light on what’s going on. 

So, I just deal with it?

Or you can plan ahead. We talked to psychologist Dr. Carolyn Rubenstein about how to prep for the emotional sh*tstorm that can be the holidays. She says you should start thinking about your plans and expectations well before it’s “tornado watch.” Because handling a storm from the eye won’t work. In her words, “Talk about your evacuation plan ahead of time.” So let’s do it.

  • If everyone’s setting their own pandemic rules...Refer to the CDC’s guidelines. Things to consider: getting at-home COVID tests, asking whether your relatives are vaccinated (we have tips for doing that here), and getting boosters or vaccines for you and your family if/when you’re eligible (that includes kids and pregnant people).

  • If togetherness stresses you out...Here’s a reminder: Burnout isn’t limited to work. It can be related to any type of chronic, unmanaged stress. As Rubenstein explains, stress is harder to manage when you’re not following your normal daily routine, like when you’re eating different foods, not moving your body as much, drinking more alcohol (which is a depressant), or not feeling a sense of achievement like you typically might at work. Not to mention extra socializing, particularly after you haven’t hung out IRL for a while, can be exhausting. Because burning happy energy is still tiring. So set boundaries. That means setting aside time for yourself to take a daily walk and move your body, or filling your fridge with foods that make you feel good. In between depleting events (like a party), incorporate activities that energize you. Think: meditating, petting a dog, eating a snack. 

  • If you know your social battery’s gonna run low…Try not to shut down immediately. To avoid sounding rude when you’re drained, be honest. Say that you'd love to stay and chat, but you’re completely spent. Follow up with a message the next day. And there’s a good chance that you and your partner will want to leave at different times (because, don’t you always?). So plan your exit strategy ahead of time. Or have a *secret* code that signals when you’re ready to bounce.

  • If you’re agonizing over the perfect gift...Know that there’s a lot to unwrap there. But here’s a secret from Rubenstein: racking your brain to give something unbelievably thoughtful might not be the best move for your mental health. Instead, ask them what they want. Hear us out. Actually having a conversation shows that you value the things that they want for themselves. Also, spoiler: No one wants to feign delight (been there) over a present they don’t need (Psst: our holiday gift shop might help). This is why registries exist. Plan B: give them time (babysitter money, cleaning service, etc.), an activity for the two of you (like a trip, dinner out, or trying out a tasting class), or — we’re gonna say it — money. The truth is that sentimental gifts aren’t always as desirable as givers think they are (there’s research on this).

  • If you’re bracing for awkward convos...Try to keep the eye rolls to a minimum. If you can’t avoid that uncle who touts conspiracy theories or that cousin who always comments on your appearance, Rubenstein recommends you practice your responses ahead of time. Some ideas: Say “I hear you” or “Let’s talk about this a little later” without attempting to argue. Or go with something like, “I’d rather not discuss my body today” to shut down commentary on how you look (which is a tip from certified eating disorder registered dietitian Anna Sweeney, who talked to us about how the holidays can be triggering). Whatever you decide, make sure you’re picking the path of least stress for you. Then actually map a way to get that quality time with the people who are most important to you. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that Zoom can’t replace that IRL hug from grandma. 

  • If the elf on the shelf isn’t solving your parenting problems...Set expectations. Let the fam know early (and often) that you probably can’t swing Insta-worthy decorations or recipes (and that’s OK). And when it comes to gifts, make sure those aren’t the only special parts of the season. Consider donating to a meaningful cause, encouraging family members to do random acts of kindness, and making cards for front-line workers together. 

  • If you’re doing the holidays solo...Appreciate your time with yourself. (Hey, aloneliness is a thing.) Maybe you can finally open that pristine journal and write. Your first topic: a few things that make you happy (aka practicing gratitude). And whether you’re alone or have a crew, look into volunteer opportunities. Acknowledging what you have and giving back to others aren't just good for the world, but also good for your mind and body. If it’s your first holiday without a loved one, think about ways you can honor them. That can mean lighting a candle, writing a letter, cooking their favorite recipe, or making up a brand-new ritual (it’s good for your health). Reminder from Rubenstein: It’s OK to feel your feelings. Whatever they are, they’re valid. 


Just because it’s the holidays, doesn’t mean things are always merry and bright. Get ahead of holiday stress by planning: your gifts, your budget, your face time, your me time, and your exit strategies. Those deliberate extra steps won’t take away the magic of the season. They’ll keep the season more grounded and meaningful.

theSkimm consulted with psychologist Dr. Carolyn Rubenstein for this guide.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It does not constitute a medical opinion, medical advice, or diagnosis or treatment of any particular condition. 

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