In Pursuit of the Perfect Christmas: The Holidays and Mental Health

Before we really began to recognize signs of mental health challenges in one of our children, a certain pattern began to set in through the holidays.  In the midst of all of the eagerness, excitement, and anticipation, at some point, our daughter would explode.  It could happen in the midst of opening gifts, while packing the car up to visit relatives, on the drive, or once we’d returned home…or all of the above.  Part of the shame I often struggle with is recognizing that, for many years, I blamed her for ‘ruining’ Christmas.  That’s not an easy admission to make, but there it is.


It wasn’t until a few years after her diagnosis that her mother and I began to piece together what we felt might be happening.  What if, we wondered, her body and mind really didn’t make the distinction between fear-stress, and excitement-stress? What if the experience of quickened heart rate, rapid breathing, tense anticipation, shouts of joyful excitement felt the same inside as the rapid heart rate, quick, shallow breathing, and tension she might experience in a time of fear and danger?

It has been a gradual, often painful learning process for our family as we collectively recognize a truth buried deep within our bones.  Our bodies do not always differentiate between ‘good’ stress and ‘bad’.  The physical reactions to excessive happiness, joy, and eager anticipation can feel very much like those reactions to fear, anxiety, and danger. 

And what if our own exasperation and shorter fuses were the results of something similar?
Slowly, we began to adjust our expectations both of ourselves and of our daughter.  We began to adjust how much we could reasonably fit into our Christmas celebrations based on what we and she could conceivably tolerate, simplifying schedules, declining some invitations, and building time for silence and breaks from festivities into our days. 


Celebrating from a Catholic perspective helped. Our Catholic liturgical tradition recognizes that December 25 is not a single day of celebration, but the beginning of a nearly two-week period, from December 25 until the Baptism of the Lord (often the second or third week in January depending on the year) of a liturgical Christmas season.  This gave us permission to spread out our festivities, especially with family and friends rather than trying to pile everything into a single, impossibly perfect day.  It was not a magic wand, but certainly made a difference and has changed our collective approach to the holiday season ever since.


It has been a gradual, often painful learning process for our family as we collectively recognize a truth buried deep within our bones.  Our bodies do not always differentiate between ‘good’ stress and ‘bad’.  The physical reactions to excessive happiness, joy, and eager anticipation can feel very much like those reactions to fear, anxiety, and danger.  This can be true on our best days and in our best mental health moments. Chronic mental health challenges can indeed exacerbate things dramatically, but knowing this provides families with opportunities to build resiliency into their holidays.


A 2014 NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) study indicated that up to 64% of individuals experiencing mental health challenges report that the holidays make things significantly worse.


One of the best things we can do as families living with mental health challenges is to recognize ahead of time that there may be difficulties and put in place a few key strategies to assist in defusing the stress, re-directing our energies, and mitigating our expectations of others and ourselves.


These may include;

  • Recognizing the symptoms of anxiety and depression, both the physical and emotional such as; shakiness, rapid heartrate, difficulty breathing, self-isolation, negative thought, deep, unexplained sadness. Treat these as indications of a need to enact your care plan.
  • Mitigating and calibrating expectations of what the holidays ‘should’ be like. Give permission to yourself and others to take breaks from festivities, or re-schedule some events. Plan a few smaller events rather than one big gathering.
  • Acknowledging difficult family dynamics and mitigate time spent in potentially challenging circumstances.
  • Limiting alcohol consumption. Alcohol can exacerbate mental health challenges during and for days after consumption. According to Alberta Health Services, “Alcohol can actually alter the chemistry and physiology of the brain, specifically by artificially stimulating the production of dopamine. As the brain adapts to deal with the sudden release of dopamine, two things occur: a reduction in the number of dopamine receptors and a reduction in the natural production of dopamine. In other words, the brain loses its natural capacity to control stress, mood and anxiety.”
  • Planning to engage in healthy self-care activities before, after, and even during holiday events. These may include prayer, exercise, a nap, reading a book, engaging in a hobby. Five or ten minutes of silence, or a brief, brisk walk around the block can help mitigate the stress we may experience and equip us to further enjoy the time together.

While holiday celebrations were not always the most positive experiences, our recognition of the challenges, and our willingness to make adjustments have helped to create some of the fondest family memories we have. This Christmas, I pray that, within all of the excitement, and anticipation, and in particular the stresses and challenges, you and those you love experience the grace-filled presence of the Christ, born anew to share your sorrows and your joys and bear his peace into it all.


From all of us at Emmaus Family Support, Merry Christmas!


Deacon Eric Gurash

Looking for additional support from peers walking a similar path? Find out how you can join an Emmaus Support Group. Meetings are currently held on the 4th Thursdays of each month via Zoom, making them more accessible than ever!

Access free resources, videos, and articles through our Emmaus Companions Newsletter.

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