Mental Health And Holidays: Tips For Navigating This Time Of Year


Kevin Hall, president of Grant Halliburton Foundation, recently sat down with Dr. Kelly Jameson, a licensed therapist, to talk about mental health and emotional well-being during the holiday season. 

Kevin Hall: Happy holidays. I'm Kevin Hall, president of Grant Halliburton Foundation, a Dallas based nonprofit focused on the mental health of our young people and the adults in their lives. And I'm here with my friend Dr. Kelly Jameson, a licensed therapist and public speaker.

Kelly Jameson: Hi, everybody.

Kevin: We'd like to take a minute to talk about mental health and emotional well-being during the holiday season. While it can be a wonderful time for many, it can also be a season of stress and sadness and loneliness for others, especially those living with mental health conditions. Grief and loss, separation from loved ones, financial hardship, challenging family relationships and other stressors can all contribute to mental health struggles. Kelly, let's talk about some strategies for people who may be struggling to find joy and peace this holiday season.

Kelly:  Okay, let's do it.

Kevin: All right. First question. For many people, a number one source of stress around the holidays is obligations and expectations. Why do you think this is such a big issue?

Kelly: I think it's such a big issue because it's the one time of year where we are forced to be joyful and have fun and everything around us tells us we are supposed to be happy and cozy and joyful. And for a lot of people they just don't feel that way. Also, the rest of the year, we're kind of just going through our lives and work and our other obligations. But this is really kind of between Thanksgiving and Christmas is four weeks of kind of forced family fun. And the expectation is that you love it and you love every bit of it and you look good doing it. And for a lot of people, that's just not the case.

Kevin: Let's dive into that a little bit more. What can we do to reduce the stress?

Kelly: So, well, first of all, you need to decide, like, how are you really feeling this holiday season? Are you feeling it? Are you not feeling it? And really get clear on which direction you're going with it and then own it. If you're not feeling it, then recognize that this season might need to look a little bit differently for you than other Christmas seasons. So basically, you know, you want to think about limiting your events and staying true to your mood and how you're feeling. And don't perpetuate the hype of Christmas if you're not feeling it because then it comes across as fake and then you just exhaust yourself further. So decide if I'm not feeling it, then maybe I need to limit some obligation. Say no to a few things. Spend a few more nights at home in solitude or something that just really feeds what you need. So paying attention to what you feel, how your body feels and honoring that.

Kevin: That's great. That's great advice. So let's switch gears a little bit. Family drama, it's almost guaranteed to rear its ugly head sometime during the holidays and often at the worst possible moment. We all have it. So what can we do to navigate family drama?

Kelly: So every family is weird. I think every family is weird and has their their own facets to it that just make it a little bit uncomfortable. And get back to the expectation is the expectation is that you should talk to your Aunt Pam that you only see once a year and that you should be able to small talk with Grandma and, you know, family members that you don't see all the time. So even though these are somewhat sort of strangers in your normal life during the holiday season, everyone expects you to talk normally to them and about your life. And if your mood is not great, you don't feel like doing that. And we call that surface acting. That's basically like faking it till you make it. And that's exhausting. But to make it even more difficult, these are family members or close family friends. So you're expected to be on your P's and Q's. And this is just really exhausting if you're not into it, and your mood is not great this year.

So, you know, you don't have to be uncomfortable, but you do have to get really good at a couple of things. You know, I coach people in therapy all the time just smile and nod, you know, or to be able to say, “You know what, Uncle Joe, I'm not sure.” Or if you get a lot of questions about things that are going on in your life that are uncomfortable or you don't really have the answers to, you say, “You know, I don't know. I hope to know more about that in six months. But for now, I can tell you I'm just happy to be here.” So we kind of use humor to package things quickly to help people move along. So it's the art of small talk, which is important during the holidays. Some people are really good at small talk and some people aren't. But if you're having a blue Christmas, small talk is going to feel heavy. So you just need a couple of one liners to get yourself through a conversation and move on to the next. And I always coach people, regardless of where their mood is, small talk is just always ask other people questions about themselves. It immediately gets the spotlight off of you and everyone loves to talk about themselves. So if you can just quickly ask a question about them and get them talking, then you've checked the box and you can move on.

Kevin: Yeah, that's great. Now, the holidays can be especially hard for people who have lost loved ones. What can a person do to honor their loved ones but still find joy and comfort in the holiday season?

Kelly: Yeah, this is a tough one for sure. Again, you have to spend some time doing a lot of self checks on where are you with your grief and where are you with your loss? Is it so fresh and so new that you are just not fit for public? And if so, you need to honor that and figure out ways to honor that person in your own personal time. And that's maybe looking at photos or videos or holding some of their personal items and spending time doing that. But if you feel like you can be out and about in public or with family or friends, then a great thing to do is to go do something that they loved to do when they were here and go to that special event or that special shop or that special park or that special restaurant and honor them in that way. But if you're not feeling it, don't try to go out in public and do something. So just be clear, do I need to do something at home or it doesn't matter what I look like and it doesn't matter if I'm a crying mess or if I'm upset or can I go out in public and do that. So it's a lot of honesty with yourself about what you're capable of doing and honoring that.

Kevin: This is great stuff, Kelly. Now, what would you say to someone who is really having a hard time and struggling with their mental health?

Kelly: Well, anyone struggling with mental illness, regardless of holidays or not, is really recognizing when you need help outside of what your friends or family is capable of doing for you. In mental health, there are different levels, and if you've sort of leveled up in that you need professional help you really need to be honest with yourself. Mental health is not really anything that is an inside job. If you're feeling like your friends and family aren't helping you get to that next level or helping you work through it, then you have to make some phone calls. And generally that's your primary care provider, school counselor, a church leader that you feel comfortable with. People who have resources that can help you through that. Family and friends are great with being the sounding board, but oftentimes the step two, which is the help, sometimes they struggle with that part. And that's where you really need to invite some professionals into it. So just again, recognizing if friends and family are helping you in the way that you need. But if you truly feel you need more, then that's not going to be a friends and family conversation, that's going to be a professional conversation. And there's lots of resources to help with that.

Kevin: Kelly, thank you so much for joining me and for all this helpful information. Thanks to the North and Central Texas Conferences of The United Methodist Church for creating this wonderful resource website. Also, dozens of churches across the two conferences are hosting blue Christmas services worship experiences to offer hope for people of all backgrounds, beliefs and struggles. You can find a full listing of those services, including dates, times and locations on this site. It's very common to experience stress this time of year. Remember to take care of yourself this holiday season and make an extra effort to truly connect with your friends and family. Someone in your life may need that connection more than you know, whether you're struggling yourself or caring for a loved one with mental health issues. I hope you get the help you need and find strategies to experience joy and peace this holiday season. Thank you, Kelly.

Published: Tuesday, December 19, 2023