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Your Mental Survival Guide for the Holidays

Do you set up your Christmas tree in October or breathe into a paper bag as the holidays approach? Maybe somewhere in the middle?

Family relationships, financial issues, childhood trauma, social pressures, and our familiar friend, mental illness, can stack up to make any celebration stressful. During the holidays, my brain's default setting used to be indifference, digust, or annoyance.

I could only see the effort and obligation associated with parties and presents, not to mention the way my presence was required. Planning, shopping for, and executing each celebration were blanketed with ominous apprehension. I couldn’t feel content about my own birthday because I felt forgotten or my kids didn’t cooperate with my perfectly imagined plans.

Can you relate to the thick depression filter that my brain naturally casts over my life?

Depression distorts my view of what really happens on special days. I can’t see the good things that unfold at a birthday party; I only complain about what doesn’t go right. I am blind to my child’s excitement and appreciation.

Mental illness is a big fat party pooper.

With time and healing and therapy, I am learning to have fun again. Holidays can be special, despite the extra challenges depression can create. Here are three strategies for embracing special events when you're already on mental overload.

Check your expectations.

I now understand that my own expectations sabotaged most special occasions for several years. I had a specific mental diagram for the event, including how people would behave or even what they would say (like "thank you," for example). When those standards were not met, I fell into quiet despair.

I let things over which I had no control dictate my emotions. This realization was a bit shocking. Embarrassing. Humbling. I now feel empowered to enjoy special events, even when things do not roll out according to my plan.

My family recently had professional pictures taken. I planned and prepared coordinating outfits. I chose a photographer and a location. Everything was set.

Three days before the appointment, two of my children declared that their previously approved outfits were unacceptable. At first, I was fit to be tied. My expectations of the perfect family picture would not be realized, and I felt my efforts were wasted.

Eventually, I remembered that the people in the pictures were more important than the clothes. If I wanted smiling children, I had to give up my "perfect" plans. Guess what? It all worked out. Our photography experience was fun and the pictures are great.

Make it about someone else.

Before you say, “Hey! I already overextend myself for my family,” hear me out.

Mother’s Day probably sparks emotional struggle for many women. For years, I lost myself in a bit of entitlement, expecting the day to celebrate only ME! I often chose disappointment over joy.

Things changed for me when I began focusing on something I could control: my own thoughts. Instead of thinking, “I’m a terrible mother/woman/human because of XYZ,” or "My family must not love me because they didn't do ____," I thought, “I love my family so much.” This new thought changed my feelings and actions, completely revolutionizing my Mother’s Day experience. Controlling my internal narrative is so liberating!

Here's another example. This year, as my birthday approached, I craved a gathering. (Underneath all the depression, authentic Heidi loves people and parties.) Wanting to avoid past pitfalls of expectation and entitlement, I decided to throw a service party. Friends joined me in my home for simple food and craft projects that would benefit nursing home residents. I got what I wanted – socializing, service, and sweets – and other people benefitted, too.


I have a knack for the elaborate. Grand visions and complicated planning seem to run in my blood (alongside the mania, I suppose).

A few years ago, feeling a desire to scale back my family’s Christmas plans, I asked what was on everyone’s MUST-DO list for the Christmas season. The results really surprised me! Driving around to see the lights and making graham-cracker-and-candy houses were the only things the kids felt were essential.

Things we took off the list included visiting the local nativity display, throwing a neighborhood friend party, and decorating sugar cookies. In our large family, we opted to have the kids draw names for sibling gift-giving, which eliminated a lot of shopping and wrapping. These changes allowed me to better balance my resources, including my emotional energy. Simpler really is better!

Own Your Own Emotions, Period.

Remembering that I am not responsible for anyone else’s feelings helps me keep my own feelings in my comfort zone. Chanting something like this helps: I can only manage my emotions, even if my child doesn’t love the gift I lovingly selected. Even if I burn the lasagna on Christmas Eve. Even if the pajamas don’t match or money is tight or the relatives are fighting. If other people are upset, I can remain calm. I don’t have to join the fray.

You Do You!

With a holiday season looming (remember, that's my depression filter talking), what will you do to lessen your emotional load?

Start with something from this list and see how it feels! Even a subtle change can make a huge difference.

Try moving toward the idea that this really IS the most wonderful time of the year…and see what kind of magic happens.


Are you looking for a great tool that will help you talk about mental illness? When Mommy Feels Sad is an illustrated children's book that teaches about depression and the difficult feelings and experiences that go along with it. Start a conversation about depression with your loved one today.

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