Mental Health

Holiday Triggers: Getting Through Family Gatherings with a Mental Illness

It’s normal to feel stressed out, and even sad, during the holidays. But for people with mental illness, these feelings of normal stress and sadness are even worse.

Today, I am going to talk specifically about holiday gatherings. They can be harder for people with depression (or any other mental illness). Here are a few reasons why that can be:

  • Other family members may be struggling with mental health issues.
  • The stress exacerbates the mental illness’ symptoms, which may already be out of control.
  • Some people put pressure on people to do things that may harm their mental health, with or without meaning to.
  • Sometimes, families can bring up bad memories, with or without intending to upset anyone. Bad memories can trigger negative emotions, especially for those with a mental illness.[1]
  • There is a pressure to be happy and cheery during the holidays.

Family gatherings are something I deal with every year. No matter how much I love my family, no matter how much they love me, it can be hard. I’m not sure about you but when I’m depressed, being around people who are all happy and jolly, is really uncomfortable. I started to just do what I could and leave the rest. I’ve been open and honest with everyone so that I can do that without feeling guilty.

If you have a hard time with family gatherings, here are 10 tips on how to set boundaries and get through the holidays:

Don’t do things you don’t want to do/aren’t comfortable with. “The key is to be conscious about what you’re doing. This holiday season, don’t unthinkingly do things the same way just because that’s how you always do them. If the old holiday traditions aren’t working, if they’re not making you happy and causing holiday stress, it’s time to do something different.”[2] Think about what you want to do. Think about how you want to spend the holidays. If you don’t feel up to doing something, don’t. don’t do things just because people expect you to, or because it’s what you do every year. “You do not owe your family anything that compromises your health.”[3]If you feel like staying in, stay in. It’s okay. If you leave mid-gathering, that’s okay too. If you choose to do one thing, don’t feel obligated to do the other.

Don’t ignore your feelings just because it’s the holidays. Depression doesn’t go away just because it’s Christmas. “If you have negative feelings, don’t try to deny them. Remember that there’s nothing wrong or shameful or unusual about feeling down during the holidays.”[4] People might try to snap you out of it, or one of your parents might say something along the lines of “’Everyone’s here. Can’t you just try to be happy for just an hour or two? Or would it kill you to smile just once for your grandmother?’”[5] Trust me, I’ve heard it too many times. Stand up to those comments. Don’t let those comments make you feel bad.

Start a new tradition. If old traditions are too much for you to handle or trigger you, find something to replace (or add) to your old traditions. Maybe it’s staying home and watching Christmas movies all day, or having Christmas dinner with just a few close friends.

Make yourself a priority. During the busy, stressful holiday season, “self-care often takes a backseat.”[6] Find time for self-care, and try and maintain a healthy schedule. Small things you could do for self care are exercising (even just for a half hour per day, if that), going for a walk/run, eating healthy, journaling, meditating, etc.

Walk away from stressful situations. “Then decide whether the healthier choice is to return to the gettogether or go home.”[7]

Try not to feel guilty. You shouldn’t feel guilty for doing any of the above points. It’s not selfish, no matter what you or other people think. You shouldn’t just throw your needs out the window just because it’s the holidays. You should be able to take care of yourself during the holidays. Just like everyone else, you have every right to a happy and healthy holiday.

Stay close with those who matter to you and “know you”. I asked my best friend to come with me to my family functions this year because that’s who I feel most comfortable with and she brings out the best in me. If you need that type of support, there’s nothing wrong with that. Those who “know you” might even be able to snap you out of your depression, even just for a bit, because they know what makes you happy, understand you, never judge you, and will be able to pull you away from triggers. Let your support system be your support system (just make sure their okay with it first).

Avoid alcohol. “Alcohol can interfere with medication and exacerbate symptoms. It also might spark an altercation or two.”[8]

Try to have fun. Laugh lots. I’m not saying “snap out of it”, but try your best to enjoy the holidays, even if you are feeling down. Crack a smile or chuckle at your uncle who thinks he’s so funny. Try and participate in Christmas carols. Cuddle and laugh with your friends/significant other. After all, time flies when you’re having fun.

If feeling suicidal, call crisis or 911, or have someone bring you to the hospital. NO MATTER WHAT. No matter what you’re interrupting. Your safety and health comes first.

Stay strong and remember, you’re not alone. If you need to talk to someone, especially if you feel like you have no one else, don’t hesitate to contact me, because I will be there for you.


[1] Tracy, N. (2012). Dealing with Bipolar at the Holidays – Family. Healthy Place. Retrieved from

[2] Griffin, M. (2008). Holiday Gatherings With Family: Tips for Holiday Stress and Anxiety. WebMD. Retrieved from

[3] Tracy, 2012

[4] Griffin, 2008

[5] De Jong, I. (2014). Depression and the Christmas Holiday Season. OrgCode Consulting, Inc.. Retrieved from

[6] Tartakovsky, M. (2011). 9 Ideas for Coping with the Holidays When You Have a Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved from

[7] Tartakovsky, 2011

[8] Tartakovsky, 2011

Jessica Victoria
<p>Jessica Victoria, 24, is a writer and advocate for mental health, disability and LGBTQ+. She uses her personal experiences and knowledge to help and educate others.</p>

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