Your mental health: Surviving the holiday season

The holiday season can be anxiety-producing for all kinds of reasons, and for LGBTQ folks there are some particular issues that can lead to added stress or complications — from family conflict to religious traditions, feelings of estrangement or rejection, and so on. With the season almost here, we wanted to share some advice on how to get through some of the common challenges of this time of year with your mental health and well-being intact.

Family drama: Heading back home

If you’re like most people, family gatherings tend to bring up mixed emotions — some warm and happy, others not so welcome — the kind that may have you wishing you could hop the next plane or train out of there! That’s why it’s best to plan ahead, especially if you anticipate any kind of turbulence. Think about what your own personal “triggers” are, whether it’s a topic of conversation or a particularly irritating/unfriendly relative. Look to your allies within the family to support you and help navigate those rocky moments.

Also, make a decision about being “out” to each family member before you visit. If you are partnered, discuss in advance how you will talk about your relationship, or show affection with one another. If you bring your partner home, don’t wait until late into the holiday evening to raise the issue of sleeping arrangements. Make those plans in advance — and if at all possible, have a back-up plan in mind (a friend’s house or a local hotel) if the situation becomes difficult at home.

And if you’re planning to come out to your family for the first time over the holidays, do some homework first — check the PFLAG website for some helpful resources, and find out about local LGBT resources, such as community centers, in your hometown.

Don’t assume you know how somebody will react to news of your sexual orientation or gender identity — you may be surprised. Keep in mind that a family member’s reaction to you may not have anything to do with your orientation or identity, and that the hectic holiday pace may cause family members to act differently than they would under less stressful conditions. And remember that “coming out” is a continuous process, one that may be repeated with different members of the family at different times and in different ways.

Most importantly, don’t wait for your family’s attitude to change in order for you to enjoy the holiday. Your parents and/or extended family may need some time to acknowledge and accept that they have an LGBTQ child. Remember that it probably took you some time to come to terms with it! Now it’s their turn. Let your family’s judgments be theirs to work on, as long as they are kind to you. If you are transgender, be gentle with your family’s pronoun “slips.” Let them know you know how difficult it is, and be appreciative of those who make an effort. If you find it’s simply too hard to be with your family, think about that Plan B: getting together with supportive friends for your own holiday celebration.

To drink or not to drink?

For people who are in active recovery, as well as those who have concerns about their use of alcohol or other substances, the holidays can be an especially tricky time. Whether it’s an awkward family dinner, a meet-up with old friends, your partner’s unbearable work gathering (or your own) — you will find yourself in any number of situations where the temptation to overindulge is strong. On top of that, the financial pressures, family stress and the sheer volume of social gatherings can tempt even the most disciplined folks. To avoid these traps, plan for success. Know your limit — whether it’s two or three drinks, or zero, and stick to it — ask a friend to monitor you if it helps. Consider drinking a non-alcoholic beverage or water between drinks. At parties and gatherings, it’s easy to get caught up and lose track of time. Have an exit strategy — a set time at which you plan to leave the party, and be sure your coat and gloves are in hand when the time comes!

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Whether you’re trying to cut back or eliminate alcohol all together, or maybe you want to avoid the influence of an overindulgent friend, let others know what you are trying to do and enlist their support. The power of positive encouragement can go a long way. And once you have stated a goal, you feel much more accountable, which is a strong motivator.

If your past holidays have revolved around heavy partying, think about creating some new, healthier traditions, such as hosting an alcohol-free party or movie night, going for a winter hike, attending a concert or some other event that won’t include or revolve around drinking.

You might also consider attending a support group for even more encouragement and advice. There are all kinds of resources available to you, from traditional 12-step groups such as AA and NA to the support groups offered by Mazzoni Center, which take an individualized “harm-reduction” approach rather than requiring an all-or-nothing commitment.

Beating the holiday blues

We all experience moments of sadness in the midst of the holiday celebrations. Facing the end of the year can bring on nostalgia, introspection and sometimes disappointment that things that haven’t gone as well as we’d hoped over the year. Some of us are getting over a breakup, facing our first holiday alone in a while, coping with a stressful family or job situation or just realizing that our idealized expectations for this time of year aren’t being met. Any of these can leave us feeling anxious, let down, disillusioned, alienated or simply stretched to emotional limits. Often, people try to counter their strain by overindulging in food or drink or placing still-further demands on themselves and going to greater, more elaborate efforts to ensure their holidays are the “best ever.” When you’re feeling blue, just remember that plenty of others are coping with their own private struggle — so although you may feel lonely, you are by no means alone. Reach out to friends, family, colleagues and neighbors with a simple gesture of greeting and good cheer, and you may find the act of simple connection goes a long way. And remember, this season doesn’t last forever; it will be over before long.

Top-10 tips for a healthy and happy holiday season: • Keep your expectations manageable. • Remember, the holidays don’t necessary eliminate feelings of sadness or isolation. • Limit predictable sources of stress: shopping, decorating, traffic, your Aunt Judy, etc. • Resist commercial hype. • Spend time with supportive and caring people, whomever they may be. • Attend holiday events in your community. • Volunteer to help others in need. • Don’t abandon healthy habits. • Make time for physical exercise. • Enjoy traditions, if they’re your thing — but by all means don’t feel constrained by tradition!

Often, the most memorable holidays are the ones where everything goes wrong (power failure, burned turkey, missed flights) and yet you manage to make the best of it through improvisation and good humor. Keep in mind that the season is less about all the trappings and gifts, and more about a spirit of kindness expressed toward others (and yourself!). The more you can embrace this and embody it in your own actions, the happier you will be. Judy Morrissey, LCSW, is behavioral health services director at Mazzoni Center.