How to Survive the Holiday Season with a Mental Illness

Posted by:

The holiday season can be a challenging time for the mentally ill. In addition to missed therapy appointments, missed sleep and the stimulation of friends and family, long travel days can lead to missed medication and poor diet choices. That combined with any family drama that may arise can make for a depressing January.

Of course, the holiday season is different for everyone, and no two mental disorders are the same. Someone with depression or anxiety may need to handle things differently than someone with bipolar disorder or posttraumatic stress disorder, for example. If you’re having some concerns about this time of year, visit your Newport Beach psychiatrist and come up with a specific plan.

Unfortunately, the holiday season can be a stressful and depressing time even for those without a mental illness. People tend to have financial concerns when it comes to spending money on gifts and travel, and they don’t always take the time to take care of themselves. Cold, gloomy winter days can lead to seasonal depression. Unhealthy relationships with family members can cause tension. People who are estranged from their family members often feel lonely.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. The holiday season is also a time for reconnecting with people we don’t see often enough, enjoying seasonal shows and family traditions, and giving meaningful gifts. If you’re feeling a little “off” or you’re concerned about managing your mental disorder, these tips can help.

  1. Acknowledge your feelings. Do not downplay the way you’re feeling or pretend everything is fine. One of the first steps in dealing with holiday stress is simply to express your true feelings. This doesn’t mean you should scream and yell at everyone in your path, but if you need to take time to cry or share your thoughts with a trusted family member or friend, you might find the burden feels lighter already. You cannot and should not force yourself to be happy just because it’s expected of you.
  1. Keep your expectations realistic. Remember, nobody has the perfect family. Even people who seem to have it all together have their moments. So rid yourself of the unrealistic expectations that whatever family function you attend or host will be perfect. You will have to deal with the same old family dynamic, and someone you love might push your buttons (or vice versa). Accept your loved ones as they are. Set healthy boundaries to keep things peaceful. If someone says something offensive to you or brings up a topic you’re not comfortable discussing, walk away.
  1. Keep your schedule as sane as possible. This goes for both the mentally healthy and the mentally ill. If you cram too much into your schedule, you won’t enjoy any of what you’re doing. Allow breaks from time to time for you to relax and rest. If at all possible, keep your schedule and routine the same so you don’t forget to take your medications. This means going to bed at your usual time for the first couple of nights you’re away, even if you’ve traveled to a different time zone. Prioritize the events that mean the most to you and politely pass on the rest. Do not allow yourself to feel guilty.
  1. Focus on healthy habits. This doesn’t mean skipping out on every cookie or helping of mashed potatoes. But keeping some healthy habits in your day is a great way to help you feel stable. Try to eat a few servings of fruits and vegetables every day, drink plenty of water and get some exercise as often as you can. Even a brisk 15 minute walk will leave you feeling refreshed. Think twice about overindulging in alcohol—too much booze can exacerbate depression and anxiety, not to mention wreak havoc on your body if you use medication.
  1. Make a plan with your therapist and discuss it in advance. If the holidays tend to make your mental illness worse or worsen your depression, you may need a temporary increase in medication. Schedule an appointment with your therapist to talk about it. More medication might not be necessary, but either way, you can make a plan together and talk about it so you don’t resort to unhealthy behaviors. Go over your plan with a trusted family member (such as telling your mother you’ll need to leave Christmas Eve dinner early to get plenty of rest and avoid direct contact with your overbearing aunt) for best results.

Remember, the holiday season is temporary, and it can be a fun, happy time as long as you take proper precautions and take good care of yourself.