There is a great deal of activity during the holiday season: exchanging presents, lots of eating, and, of course, an overload of gatherings and family interactions. While these can be fun and joyous occasions for most, some may be struggling with mental health challenges and other life stressors, which can be triggered by the holiday season.
This is particularly true for many active military members, veterans, and their family and friends. The Cohen Veterans Network, of which the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center in NYU Langone Health’s Department of Psychiatry is a member, offers some advice below on how to get through the holidays.
Engage in Self-Care
Amanda M. Spray, PhD, director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center, emphasizes the importance of maintaining your exercise regimen over the holiday seasons. “We often forget about self-care during this time of year, and it is essential to take care of ourselves as we prepare to celebrate, host our families, and engage in potentially stressful interactions,” says Dr. Spray.
Ariane Ling, PhD, a staff psychologist at NYU Langone’s Military Family Center, also stresses the importance of self-care. “Even if it means taking a few minutes to cope with a stress ball or silly putty, these small moments of self-care can be the breaks we need in a stressful season,” Dr. Ling adds.
Lead clinician Aileen Serrano, LPC, from the Cohen Military Family Clinic in El Paso, Texas, suggests scheduling personal time into your calendar to prevent the stress from becoming overwhelming. “Use those times to breathe and relax before you start to feel overwhelmed,” she adds.
Laura E. Price, PhD, a psychologist at NYU Langone’s Military Family Center and coordinator of its Telemental Health Program, suggests setting good boundaries about discussion of politics over holiday meals. “Have rules of engagement around politics to mitigate flying drumsticks,” she says.
Pay Attention to Loss
Shari Hauser, PhD, director of the Cohen Military Family Clinic in San Diego, provides specific suggestions for coping with loss around the holidays. First, she suggests scheduling time to grieve if you know you will miss a tradition, person, or even how things used to be. For those who have lost a loved one, the holidays can bring a fresh wave of pain. Plan time to acknowledge it. An hour here, 20 minutes there, allows you time to process feelings—or hold them until you have time to process them, she says. This works for deployed spouses away from family, divorced or separated parents spending the holiday away from their kids, or even those struggling with the loss of a pet.
Second, she suggests modifying traditions. For example, some family members no longer with us are remembered around the holidays for their baking expertise, but you might lack the same skills. If you still want treats to be a part of your holiday traditions, consider inviting a friend over, picking one recipe, and baking together. This can now be your tradition, says Dr. Hauser.
Third, she suggests remembering it is a season of high hopes and searing losses for everyone, even if we do not know it. A lot of grace and forgiveness goes a long way. When you are going through rough patches, you sometimes can be rude to everyone around you. Your expectations and fears sometimes keep you hyper-vigilant and unable to connect and unaware of even whose feelings you are hurting. So cut everyone some slack and work on restraint. Your difficulties should not ruin the holidays for others. And if these feelings persist after the holidays, talk to the person and see what was really going on, Dr. Hauser recommends.
Clinical intern Jessie Eisenmann from the Cohen Military Family Clinic in Clarksville, Tennessee, suggests giving a lot of thought to what you can and cannot do during the holiday season. “You don’t have to attend every holiday party, participate in every activity, and see everyone who wants to see you,” she says. “Some things may be worse triggers for sad emotions than others.”
Ms. Eisenmann adds that this can be particularly true when a loss is fairly recent. “Just be honest with yourself and with others, and politely turn down an invitation. It’s OK. You can always revisit the situation next year. Your family and friends will understand, and if they don’t, that’s their problem, not yours,” she says.
If you are a post-9/11 veteran or military family member struggling with stress, depression, anxiety, or any combination of these conditions this holiday season, contact the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Center at NYU Langone Heath at 855-698-4677 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.