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Psychologist shares tips to maintain mental well-being during the holiday season

The holiday season is in full swing which means food, friends, family and festivities. While this can be a joyous time, it can also be challenging.
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The gifts you haven’t wrapped, the Christmas cards to send, decorating, obligations to family and friends…it can all cause unwanted stress. So how can you ease this stress to get more enjoyment out of the holiday season? Dr. Heather Fulton, Psychologist with the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addictions, shares practical tips to boost your mental health and wellness. 

"The holidays can be a riskier time of year for your mental health. Whether it's increased demands at work with vacations booked, expectations placed on yourself for family or hosting duties, sad memories of people who are no longer with us, or even the temptation to use less than healthy coping strategies during this time can all cause stress," says Dr. Fulton. 

Dr. Fulton shares one of the simple things we can do is set realistic expectations. We can try to avoid putting extra pressure on ourselves to cook the perfect meal, have the decorations just right or feel the need to RSVP to every invitation. Dr. Fulton also recommends being aware of how you talk to yourself; self-talk can be an effective tool in helping to lower the high expectations we commonly place on ourselves during the holidays.

"Be aware of the "shoulds".  It can be helpful to replace the word "should" with "I would prefer it if." Shoulds can make us feel beaten down, mandated or out of control," says Dr. Fulton. "For example, instead of "I should get the cards done by Sunday" or "I should keep everyone happy", try "I would prefer it if I got the cards done by Sunday" or "I would prefer it if everyone had a great holiday season but that's not totally in my control." Take moments to think about how you're talking to yourself and change the dialogue."

In addition to self-talk, Dr. Fulton suggests going back to the basics of maintaining mental health and wellness. These are things that we tend to let go first, but are important to practice during stressful times. 

"This is the time of year where we tend to let the essential self-care activities fall by the wayside, such as getting regular exercise, eating healthy meals, taking time relax and giving ourselves enough sleep," says Dr. Fulton. "When it comes to exercise maybe you aren't able to stick to your usual gym routine, but can you try a different activity with friends or family like a walk or hike? These are simple and fun ways we can maintain our well-being."

Dr. Fulton also reminds people of the extra stress or pressures experienced by those who are struggling with substance use issues. This is a time of year where there is lots of celebrating that can expose people to alcohol or other substances. Dr. Fulton shares some ways to cope with temptation or to avoid high-risk situations that could result in a relapse.

"A really important thing is to recognize the high-risk situations where you might use substances. Ask yourself if you can avoid that situation or could you suggest an alternate event that has less focus on drinking or other substances such as ice skating," says Dr. Fulton. "If you can't avoid that high-risk situation, ask for social support from someone who is not using substances. This person can help coach or support you if you're having a difficult moment, be with you if you need to take a breather or even leave early with you."

A very important reminder for everyone is to not be afraid to ask for more help if you need it. This could be reaching out to your family doctor or accessing resources that can help with managing stress. Dr. Fulton recommends these free resources available to anyone in BC

  • Call 310-6789: 24/7 confidential mental health support for anyone in BC
  • Here to Help: online mental health information and tools
  • AnxietyCanada: information on how anxiety can express itself and effective strategies to address it in children, youth and young adults.
  • Canadian Mental Health Association BounceBack: teaches effective skills to help individuals overcome symptoms of mild to moderate depression or anxiety, and improve their mental health. 

Tips to ease stress over the holidays:

  • Give yourself time and space for self-care activities: take time for yourself, practice mindfulness or go for a walk.
  • Maintain a healthy routine: eat healthy, get a good night's sleep and stay physically active.
  • Be aware of how you talk to yourself: for example, recognize the "should". It can be helpful to replace the word should with "I would prefer if" or "It would be nice if."
  • Set boundaries: set limits and practice saying no. Remember when you say yes to one thing, you're saying no to something else.

Tips for those who are struggling with substance use issues:

  • Identify high-risk situations: identify what situations may put you most at risk for using, such as parties or family gatherings.
  • Know your triggers: ask yourself what kinds of things may tempt you to use substances. If it's stress, try using self-care activities to manage stress like exercising or talking to supportive friends or family.
  • Take part in non-alcohol or drug-related activities: find activities around the holidays that do not involve substances such as ice skating, hiking or seeing holiday light displays.
  • Ask for social support: if you are going to an event that is high-risk, ask for someone who will not be using substances to come with you as your support

We wish you a safe and happy holiday season! To learn more about BC Mental Health & Substance Use Services' programs and resources, please visit our website.


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