Surviving the Holidays When You’re Mentally Ill

The Ultimate “How To” Guide for Surviving the Holidays When You’re Mentally Ill

What is your favorite holiday?  Do you like watching scary movies and dressing up for Halloween? How about all the delicious food at Thanksgiving dinner? Do you like giving gifts to loved ones on Christmas morning?  Staying up all night on New Year’s?

My favorite, hands down, is Thanksgiving.  Obviously, the food is a major draw, but I love that it is a holiday centered around what we are thankful for.  This is something that is often lost in the stress of day to day life: thinking about the things we’re grateful for.

That being said, the holidays can be a difficult time for a lot of people, especially those with mental illness.  The crisp white snow, the harsh cold, the decorating… often times these experiences that bring joy to so many people are unpleasant for many others.

Surviving the Holidays

Are you one of those people? Does simply thinking about the holidays make you want to hide under your blankets all day?  I’m going to offer some great advice for how you can make the holidays enjoyable, even when that seems impossible.

Surviving the holidays when you’re mentally ill: Do you have social anxiety?

Social anxiety is “the fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people. You could say social anxiety is the fear and anxiety of being negatively judged and evaluated by other people. It is a pervasive disorder and causes anxiety and fear in most all areas of a person’s life.”

It affects about 7 percent of the population.  That is a much larger number than it seems. For instance, if you have a large Christmas party with 100 coworkers, 7 of them are affected by social anxiety to some degree.

This is something I struggle with a lot around the holidays.  After all, it’s two solid months of interacting with people. This can unfortunately be triggering for those with mental illness.  Personally, it is hard to talk to family all night long at gatherings. It’s uncomfortable and draining.

So what can you do to survive the holidays with mental illness?

I’m going to give you a couple pieces of awesome advice that I use every time I go to a gathering.  First of all, give yourself a time frame of how long you are going to stay. Parties can seem interminable when you are feeling anxious.  Doesn’t it seem like they’ll never end? Instead, I tell myself how long I am going to stay. If I say, I’m going to stay from 7-10, for instance, it serves as a light at the end of the tunnel in my mind, and makes it more manageable.

Second of all, I give myself an out.  I come up with a hypothetical scenario which would allow me to leave.  If your social anxiety typically gives you stomach aches, then make the decision that if you start feeling queasy, it is okay to leave.  Giving yourself that permission does wonders!

Surviving the holidays when you’re mentally ill: Do you have seasonal depression?

My depression is always worse around the holidays.  The winter season can be hard for a lot of people. Did you know there is actual science to back that up?

Seasonal depression is defined as “a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer.”

Some signs of the winter blues listed in the above linked article are:

  • Oversleeping (I feel personally attacked by this one!)
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Tiredness or low energy

So what can you do to survive the holidays with mental illness?

I definitely recommend getting as much sunlight as possible.  Where I live it can get pretty cold, so a lot of times it is difficult to spend time outside in the winter months.  Still, if you can manage even a 10-15 minute winter walk around the block on a sunny day, this will help your moods.  A common tool for those whose hearts and minds miss the sunshine are artificial light boxes. They mimic the sun, and can be easily set up anywhere in your home.  Sit in front of it while reading a book for 30 minutes a day.

Make sure you are taking a Vitamin D supplement.  The sun is a major source of Vitamin D, so many find themselves deficient in winter months.  Deficiency can lead to lower energy and issues with moods. Grab yourself a bottle at your local drug store, and make sure to take it every day.

Finally, try to get some exercise every day.  I am a major proponent of exercise being a cure for mental health issues.  Okay, not a cure. There is no current cure for depression. But what I strongly believe is that regular exercise floods our body with chemicals that aid in mood improvement, and just general physical health.  So, hit the treadmill for at least 15 minutes a day, even if that is all you can manage.

Surviving the holidays when you’re mentally ill: Are you missing loved ones?

This is another one I can really relate to.  I miss my grandparents so much around the holidays.  It’s almost a palpable feeling, isn’t it? In the minds of so many, the smells and tastes and sights of the holidays are so inextricably linked to memories of those we love.  Gingersnaps make me think of my maternal grandfather, for example.

So what can you do to survive the holidays when you are grieving?

Many of us miss those we have lost.  Maybe you miss a loved one serving in the armed forces.  Maybe you just went through a breakup. Whatever the case my advice is simple: Don’t avoid the subject.  It might feel natural to want to shy away from talking about the person you miss, but I really recommend the opposite.  Make them a topic of conversation.

  • If you miss someone who passed away like I do, go around the table and tell stories about that person.  Happy memories will trigger positive emotions that counteract the sadness you might be feeling.  
  • If you miss someone serving in the military, try to set up a call with them!  If you are not able to call them, collaborate with family members on a care package.  Include letters, photo, favorite snack items… anything personal to them.
  • If you went through a breakup, don’t awkwardly avoid people’s questions.  It might hurt to talk about it, but bravely facing their inquiries will make you feel better.  It will remind you how strong you are, a reminder a lot of us need around the holidays.

Surviving the holidays when you’re mentally ill: Are you stressed?

Something that triggers my mood issues during the days is the hustle and bustle.  There is so much to think about. Planning holiday gatherings, making travel arrangements, buying gifts for people and wrapping them…  It can be a lot to handle. Especially when, like me, I’m also simultaneously keep two tiny humans alive.

What are symptoms of stress? Some emotional symptoms are:

  • Becoming easily agitated, frustrated, and moody
  • Feeling overwhelmed, like you are losing control or need to take control
  • Having difficulty relaxing and quieting your mind
  • Feeling bad about yourself (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless, and depressed
  • Avoiding others

There are also actually physical symptoms to be aware of.  These include:

  • Low energy
  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea
  • Aches, pains, and tense muscles
  • Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds and infections
  • Loss of sexual desire and/or ability
  • Nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet
  • Dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
  • Clenched jaw and grinding teeth

As you can see, a lot of these symptoms are things people might experience every day without realizing they are stressed!

So what can you do to survive the holidays with stress?

I am a major fan of creating manageable to do lists for myself.  My favorite app is TickTick. I recommend writing down a huge list of everything you need to accomplish over the course of the holidays.  After you do that, break it down into categories. I like labeling things as High Priority and Low Priority. This lets me know what is most important to tackle first.  After that, categorize the tasks in order of the deadline. If you need to book your flight home for Christmas by a certain date, make sure to indicate that on your list.

Most importantly, reward yourself for small successes.  After you are able to accomplish one or two items on your list, reward yourself by enjoying a chapter of whatever book you’re reading.  Or, if you can accomplish more than that, take the night off and enjoy some time with friends. You don’t want to feel like the tasks are a punishment, so rewarding yourself is critical!

Surviving the holidays when you’re mentally ill: Try to Enjoy the Holidays

The holiday season is a normal part of many cultures.  It is pretty difficult to avoid. It’s true, lots of people struggle to find joy during these months, but it is possible to make it through.  Just follow the above advice, take it a day at a time, and try to find joy in the little things. That’s what life’s all about, right?

About the Author

Jen (the blogger behind Diffusing the Tension) lives in Northwest Indiana with her husband and two children.  She is a busy mama who loves reading, working out, true crime, and watching TV. (Hello, murder documentaries!) 

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6 thoughts on “Surviving the Holidays When You’re Mentally Ill

  1. Excellent post by one of my fav MH bloggers! Thank you for publishing this and thank you to Jen for writing. I have a similar blog / podcast going up near Christmas time, but largely focused on Eating Disorders.

    The holidays can be tough for so many reasons, especially on those of us with MH issues.

  2. I’ve rarely and an issues with my mental health problems and seasonal holidays because I have no drive to celebrate them or be with anyone when they happen.

    I’ve spent more Xmas’ alone, since leaving home at 18 than I’ve spent with other people, and I’ve had a great time not having to make a fuss and staying in my PJs all day 🙂

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