Vices on vacation: 7 strategies to maintain your mental health this holiday season

22 December 2022

Two men are leaping into crystal-clear ocean waters. There's not a cloud in the sky.

For those of us with mental illness, the holidays are a slippery time.

Throughout the year, we strive to stay grounded – relying on our daily routines for consistency. But in the chaos of December, it’s easy to feel like we’re losing our footing.

A calendar packed with boozy catchups might look more threatening than inviting to someone working towards sobriety.

And for someone in the early days of OCD treatment, the drastic shift in routine might spark some familiar worries (and urges).

But we don’t need to white-knuckle our way through the break. A thoughtful approach can help us find the rest and recreation we need.

Here are our tips for navigating these holidays – while staying steady on the road to recovery.

1. Be realistic about the challenge

It might be tempting to assume our willpower will pull us through the holidays. But it’s important to be honest with ourselves – especially if this is our first silly season since starting treatment.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms were our crutch in years gone by. Temptation, difficult family members and our own specific triggers will test our willpower to resist them.

By starting with an honest awareness of our vices (and a little acceptance) we’ll be able to strategise.

And let’s bear in mind that one slip-up – even two – does not equal a relapse.

2. Make decisions ahead of time

Unless we’re somehow impervious to holiday stress, we should put some boundaries in place.

Say we’re on week four without a cigarette and just the thought of the end-of-year office party is sending us spinning. Usually, going for a smoke lets us escape awkward social interactions if we need to.

What if we made a plan to stick with the colleagues we feel relaxed around? (Ideally non-smokers, for minimal temptation.)

Conversely: are there others we find particularly triggering? It may be best to avoid them altogether.

And if we do need to escape, we could step out and play with a fidget spinner until our mind relaxes.

That’s just an example. But no matter the situation, planning will make it that much easier to stick to our guns.

3. Keep our routines (mostly) intact

We might feel some pressure around the holidays to relax our routines. This is a time for rest, after all! We should be letting our hair down, unwinding – hitting pause on everything.

We don’t need to, though. If we want to keep waking up at 6am for a run, we can do that. If we want to ditch a party early to be in bed at 10pm, we can.

And if we know that our mental wellbeing depends on those things, we should double down on that commitment.

We might need to get comfortable with disappointing a couple of people to keep up our routine. They’ll live. Our holidays are exactly that: ours.

4. Turn down some invitations

Back-to-back boozy events can be stressful for anyone – regardless of our relationship with alcohol.

If we live with a chronic mental illness, a packed calendar can eat away at our internal resources. And alcohol can interfere with our sleep – leaving us even more run down.

And if sobriety is our goal, just one event where beer and bubbles abound can feel like a test. When they’re happening one after another? Exam time.

If we’re stretched thin, let’s turn down an invitation or two. (If we’re honest, did we really want to go anyway…?)

5. Identify a holiday support buddy – or network

Sometimes our support networks shrink around the holidays. People fly home to their families, go on vacation or are otherwise enveloped in social commitments.

But we only need one or two trusted people to help keep us steady when we’re feeling vulnerable – whether we’re at a party or home alone.

If a close friend isn’t around, let’s arrange to call them once or twice a week over the break. If we feel awkward about asking, let’s remember we’re not asking them to be our therapist. Companionship isn’t just something we need – it’s something we can offer, too.

Of course, professional support might be essential. If you see a counsellor or psychologist regularly, we should see if they’re available during the break.

And there are plenty of free resources that offer support and community:

  • SANE – a website dedicated to complex mental health issues, and the problems that accompany them.
  • Headspace – free, confidential conversations (call or chat) with a trained professional.
  • Lifeline – judgment-free, round-the-clock crisis support.

6. Take stock of our resources

In psychology, ‘resources’ are our psychological strengths. They’re character attributes that help us cope with challenges – like the patience it takes to talk to a tricky relative, or the calm it takes to navigate a noisy family lunch.

Since we’ve been working on our mental health, we have a healthy pool of resources. Taking stock of them ahead of time can steady our nerves and bolster our confidence.

Putting in the work to strengthen our mental health takes grit, acceptance and optimism – so there are three we can point to already.

7. Dole out self-compassion in spades

While we’re on the subject: one of our most valuable resources will be self-compassion.

We can usually avoid temptation, but around the holidays, it’s thrust in our face. And the acute stress of gift-giving and tense family dynamics is a powerful emotional trigger for anyone.

Let’s resist the notion that we must be joyful, relaxed or otherwise ‘on’. The holidays are tough. Maybe especially tough for us.

But when we take some time for ourselves, they can also be a time of quiet reflection – and a reminder of how far we’ve come.

From all of us here at Positive Psychology, we wish you the best for the holidays! With the right support and the right plan, we hope you find time for that critical holiday activity: rest.

We’ll see you in January 2023 – ready to help you reach new heights.