Mental Health and the Holidays

While the media portrays the holidays as a time to spread good cheer, reconnect with family and friends, and gaze optimistically into the New Year (#NewYearNewMe), there’s an aspect of the season that we just don’t hear about: the holidays as a trigger that aggravates mental illness.

See related posts on mental health in the legal profession: “Mental Health in the Legal Profession” and “The Burden of Being Exceptional”.

The LL Bean commercial repeating during every break of my Netflix binge sessions show this sweet nuclear American family enjoying each other on Christmas morning. The beautiful parents surprise their beautiful and precocious tots with Christmas outside. Their tree adorned with shiny ornaments and perfectly wrapped gifts smattered about is an enchanting sight.

There are, however, surprisingly few anti-depression advertisements.

I know I’m not the only person who does not eagerly await the holidays at the end of the year. I kind of just let it happen. Smile and return a “happy holidays” greeting to anyone who offers it to me. It wasn’t always like this. But it is now, and that’s what matters.

There are so many people out here who long for families that are loving, nurturing, and encouraging, who desire a tribe of reliable loved-ones, and who want to feel supported or needed.

Working professionals, including lawyers, may be presented with a unique set of circumstances that trigger symptoms of mental illness. I’ll be focusing on some of the ways the holidays present vulnerability factors which trigger symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Vulnerability Factors

Each of our circumstances are unique. We stand at different junctures of identity, class status, age, etc. so what affects me will not affect you or the next person. Some concerns, however, are universal.

For example, I’m sure most of you will agree that we all want to experience love, want to feel secure in our daily lives, want to know what happiness feels like, and want to know we are advancing our individuals paths of success and accomplishment. End of the year holidays trigger thoughts of these commonly-held wants and needs. Like any business, we tend to check in with ourselves about where we are, where we set out to go, and far we have to get there. Assessing feelings of accomplishment take various forms but usually fall into personal and professional categories. For example, year-end holidays might trigger thoughts about whether you’ve met goals surrounding: weight loss, financial security, love, partnership, family, and professional success.

As it happens, your plans may have been derailed and your expectations may have changed. You’ve experienced tragedy, you’ve become unsure of yourself and what you want yet you still hold yourself to the same standards of success from before you started reassessing your priorities.

You also may be feeling especially lonely during this time of the year. Some folks experience severe anxiety around attending holiday celebrations. They may ask themselves: should I bring a plus-one? Do I have a plus-one? Will my colleagues and friends judge my plus-one? Will they think I’m flaunting my queerness in a way that makes them uncomfortable if I bring my plus-one?

You may understand the significance of building social capital in professional workplaces like law firms and so you go to the holiday parties even though such engagements do not align with your particular method of relationship-building. You don’t enjoy small talk and as the only or minority person in the room, you worry about whether and how much you have in common with your colleagues. How will you talk to these people for the next 2-3 hours?

Anxiety and depression may be triggered by specific annual industry or workplace expectations and requirements. For lawyers, particularly working in private practice and/or in law firms, some anxiety-triggering demands might include meeting annual billable hour requirements, assessing the business you’ve brought into the firm, and whether and how much of a bonus you will receive. As the new associate, you might be confused about exactly how much vacation time you’re truly expected to take. The employee handbook will say one thing while “the culture” of your department or the partners with whom you work use dog-whistle messaging to tell you something completely different.

You might be the associate that partners dump their last-minute work on so they can enjoy their holidays with family. Meanwhile, you’re having lunch and dinner delivered to your office and loading up on coffee and energy drinks to get the work done.

What do you have to show for the year? Do you anticipate receiving positive reviews of your performance in the new year? Have you been “collegial” enough? Have your capitulated too much or been too assertive? There are so many questions and concerns that pop-up.

We can’t take our mental health for granted. Being honest with ourselves and our circumstances is key to surviving the holidays if you’re not like the actors in the L.L. Bean ad.

What can you do to give yourself the best chance of getting to the new year feeling confident? Or at least not feeling more anxious and depressed than before the holiday season? 

Before we go any further, let me be clear: I am not a mental health professional.  I have some experiential insight to offer, but I encourage you to seek information and support from a qualified professional. My goal is not to prescribe solutions. Instead, I hope to acknowledge and affirm diverse experiences and encourage each of us to take care to remain as healthy as possible during this time of the year.

The best thing you can do is check-in with yourself and be honest with how you are feeling and what you need. Don’t judge your feelings. Observe them and get help if you need it. Essentially, practice mindfulness. Check out Mindfulness Exercises for some ideas.

Try not to isolate yourself, even if you think you have no one to be with or talk to.  Take yourself to a movie, to dinner, or a bar for a drink. Go to the gym. Just get out of the house. Text or call someone who’s been on your mind.

Don’t subscribe to the notion that we must be unconditionally loyal to family. You don’t have to be around anyone whose toxicity harms you.

Remember, you deserve to be affirmed and loved.

It would be cool if everyone’s holidays looked like that LL Bean commercial—if that’s your thing. The reality is a lot of ours won’t and we don’t want it to. I acknowledge and validate those feelings and experiences and wish everyone safe and fulfilling holidays.

Let us hear from you! Please comment and share circumstances and/or words of encouragement with our readers.