For years, I denied that anything was wrong. I built and sold companies and was traveling the world. I had a life that looked enviable on the outside, but inside, I was struggling.
Pouring myself into my work allowed me to ignore my insecurities and inner battles. Success and mental health issues didn’t seem like they could coexist. However, the truth is everyone struggles. Anxiety and depression affect millions of Americans and depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States for people ages 15 to 44.
Mental health can be a difficult topic to breach during normal times, not to mention during the holidays—a time that is expected to be cheerful and happy. Mental health struggles don’t seem to have a space alongside the glittering panorama of family meals, gift shopping and festive traditions, especially if you’re worried about how you are perceived by family members.
Returning home for the holidays can also be triggering as it might mean returning to a dynamic that is unhealthy, abusive or that forces you to recall childhood traumas that you continue to wrestle with as an adult (especially as holiday routines can easily yank us back to our pasts). However, silence about mental health struggles isn’t the answer either. It only leaves you feeling more alienated from the people around you.
Silence about mental health difficulties isn’t the answer.
Here are ways to protect your mental health during the holidays and share your journey with family members in order to build stronger relationships and further the healing process. Though these discussions might be hard, they are an important part of normalizing the conversation and work toward dismantling the stigma surrounding mental health.
Consult a Professional
The decision of whether or not to discuss mental health with family can be as complicated as the discussion itself. If possible, consult a professional to assess what will be most beneficial for you at this time.
Your family might not be ready to listen or be receptive to your challenges or they may be the cause of your mental health struggles. A professional can help you evaluate if talking with them is the best choice, and, if you choose to go forward, they can help you decide what is worth sharing.
Talk From Personal Experience
Before you share, know what you want to say and to whom. Avoid generalizations or simply reciting statistics. This is the time for honesty. An old adage is key here: “Show, don’t tell.” Speak from your own intimate experiences using specific details about what you’re going through and how it makes you feel. Even if your family members can’t directly understand everything that you’re saying, they’ll be able to receive information with specific details and moments, providing a foundation to continue building dialogue.
This is an opportunity to discuss patterns that make you dread holidays with your family. Focus on how what they say or do impacts you, rather than accusing them. Though it might be initially uncomfortable, beginning these conversations will begin to normalize the discussion on mental and emotional health.
Focus on how what they say or do impacts you, rather than accusing them.
Find a Safe Space to Talk
Choose a space where you will feel comfortable being vulnerable and confronting the challenges this conversation might present. While home might be the best option for some, for others, it may not offer the same sense of sanctuary or there might be too many people around.
Instead, a public (but still quiet) place like a coffee shop, local restaurant or park can offer an alternative. Opt for somewhere that isn’t too emotionally charged.
Face-to-face communication is important, but it can be daunting when you don’t know how your family members will react. Start by writing out what you want to say to allow yourself space to thoughtfully and completely process your emotions. This can build into a verbal discussion that is much less daunting.
Create a Support System
Regardless of whether or not your family is receptive to what you are dealing with, consider creating a support system—or even just one other person. People who are empathetic and nonjudgmental can offer advice and a listening ear as you continue these conversations with your family. They can also help hold you accountable in reaching your mental health goals.
Reach out to at least one close friend and have them on call throughout the holidays. This allows you to have someone to touch base with in case things become difficult.
Make New Traditions
If certain holiday routines with your family are triggering or make it hard to heal from trauma, suggest starting new ones that are free of any emotional baggage. This gives you another chance to help your family understand what struggles you face while building new memories and traditions that can be carried through the years.
Smell is our most emotive sense and the one most closely tied to memory. Consider incorporating activities that relate to scent, like cooking new recipes or time outdoors.
Consider What You Need
Attitudes toward mental health are informed by countless factors—race, age, religion, education and prior experience with mental health. Reactions toward mental health discussions may be just as diverse. Ask yourself what you are hoping to get from your family members based on who they are as individuals and their backgrounds and how you hope the holidays will go.
Set realistic expectations for where this conversation will lead. This can help ease your own emotional burden and will reduce tension. That’s not to say understanding can’t develop later. Every conversation lays the groundwork for growth and continued connection.
Every conversation lays the groundwork for growth and continued connection.
Acknowledge That It Takes Time
Change doesn’t always happen quickly, and the first foray into discussing mental health with loved ones might not end the way you wish. Don’t blame yourself if your family doesn’t react in the way that you hoped. Starting the conversation requires a great deal of bravery. Your family members might need time to process, think and figure out the right words they want to say to you.
Stick to a Routine
While you’re in a new (or new-old) place, continue to practice self-care and follow the routine. This is critical. Make sure you get regular exercise and carve out the space you need for yourself for a sense of stability, especially when the holidays can be less structured. Let your family know that you appreciate them respecting this routine, and set boundaries around your time.
By taking an active role in our mental health journeys, we can also serve as an inspiration to people in similar situations who may still feel alone. Our journeys and experiences can provide a guide for others and encourage them to prioritize their mental health.