Big family and/or friend gatherings can be trying even at the best of times: sibling rivalry, parent-child relations, group tension and power dynamics can all contribute to a fair amount of stress, however much we love each other.

Throw in some social expectations revolving around happiness, real or imagined obligations, excessive socialising and potentially copious amounts of booze and/or food, and it can be easy to see how the Christmas holidays can be overwhelming for even the sane and stable among us – and who are those people anyway?

Whoever you are and however you feel, we all go through rough periods, and in those times it can feel difficult to fully immerse yourself in all the mirth and merrymaking around you. For anyone dreading the weeks ahead, here are a few suggestions that might make this particular period slightly more manageable.

DO – let friends and family know in advance (if you can) about any particular fears or anxieties you may have, and whether or not you will have to take some time out every now and again. It sounds really simple, but it’s all part of getting out of your head, where worries can have a tendency to fester. Telling people you’re scared of bringing the mood down, or that you’ll ruin the atmosphere, can ease that fear. This is partly because most will meet you with reassurance, and partly because that anxiety, once out in the open, loosens its grip on the mind, it no longer fills up the space between thoughts. If you’re worried about being explicit about mental health, and don’t feel comfortable telling people: sadness, at the very least, is an emotion everyone can understand. Say you’re feeling a bit down, or under the weather (make a pun to ease the tension), that’s all you really need to do. Trust in people.

DON’T – be afraid to say no. Know your boundaries and respect them – no one else will enforce this for you. We often have the tendency to go all in, to agree to everything and completely exhaust ourselves. Sometimes the knowledge that you are booked out for the entire week ahead can be overwhelming. It’s fully okay to hang about in sweatpants – I always overestimate how much time I will actually spend with people every time I go home – because at the end of the day, this is YOUR holiday too.

DO – allow yourself to feel a bit shit. Everyone does, sometimes. We all put on an air of ecstatic energy, of joy, of “everything’s fine”, etc, but you only catch a snippet of everyone else’s world. Give yourself the permission – and allow space in your timetable – to have an off day (or multiple!) because contrary to how you might feel, it’s not the end of the world. It’s only one day! One at a time.

DON’T – wallow or isolate yourself too much, if you can help it. Sometimes you need quiet and space from other people, but other times you need it from yourself. It can be difficult to know which is which, but do try and seriously think: if I stay by myself for the rest of the day, will I feel better or worse by the end of it? Sometimes it’s nice to try to go out, just a little, and if you feel like it’s making you feel worse, just excuse yourself (“my cat’s sick” “what?” “bye”), no harm done.

DO – schedule specific “me time” – this can be whatever makes you feel good. Have a bath (I feel like this has been getting a lot of hate recently) or do some pampering! Last week my friends and I laughed at each other for a solid 15 minutes because our facemasks made us look utterly ridiculous, and it was great. If that’s not your jam, make some jam! Bake! Exercise! Read! Paint! Play video games! Meditate! Take a shelter dog out for a walk! … You get it.

DON’T – neglect your usual self-care (or just basic life) routines. Many of these are abandoned during the holidays, and being out of sync like this can throw you off balance. You might not be able to follow them as diligently as you usually do, but if you can still incorporate 1 or 2 elements of your normal schedule in every day, or even every other day, you’re doing good.

DO – consider taking a break from all the boozing. This can be difficult when everyone else is doing it around you, but remember: alcohol is a depressant. It can exacerbate problems that are already there, sometimes amplify minute issues into full-blown catastrophes, or simply disturb a good night’s sleep. Everyone responds to it differently, but alcohol can make matters worse, which is worth keeping in mind. If food is an issue for you, see if you can soften your judgment considering the circumstances, or if that doesn’t work, perhaps tailor some recipes to what suits your specific needs.

DON’T – fall into the trap of imagining everyone else is doing amazingly, and only you are failing. Comparison is the thief of joy! We’re all doing miserably, really. In general, you might worry about what people think of you – most of us are too busy wrapped up in ourselves to notice.

DO – remember that the festive season is full of added stressors on the individual: physically (food and drink), emotionally and mentally (relationships, expectations) and economically (outings, presents, travel). However, there is also some additional support around you, if you are able to seek it out. This is not only your holiday, it’s your Christmas. Make it so!

FRIENDS AND FAMILY!

DO – respect anyone who has said they need time out, they don’t want to drink, or that they’re struggling. You might not understand, but you don’t need to. Ask if there’s anything you can do, and say you’ll support them. Most of the time that’s all they need to hear.