by Muffy Walker, MSN, MBA
Muffy Walker, of the International Bipolar Foundation, will be writing a monthly mental health column for KRL. The first column was Healthy Living with Bipolar Disorder.
For some, the holiday season is a time filled with great joy, family gatherings, gift exchanges, and festive parties, but for others, it can be a time of stress, disappointment and loneliness. If you have a mental illness, the holidays may be especially unsettling, and in some cases, destabilizing.
The holidays come with a bang, they’re not easy to ignore. We are bombarded with store decorations, ads for greeting cards, reminders to purchase your cage-free turkey, and Christmas tree vendors popping up right after the Halloween pumpkins have been hauled away. Couple that with the shortest day of the year (winter solstice = less sunlight), and you’re likely to feel overwhelmed and headed for trouble. It is possible to cope more effectively while still celebrating your ‘reason for the season’, but it is important to take care of yourself first.
Here are some helpful hints:
1. MAINTAIN YOUR ROUTINE
• For many with a mental illness, transitions can be unsettling and difficult to maneuver. It is important to maintain your regular routine of sleep, regular meals, and doctor, therapist & support group appointments. If exercise is part of your routine, and it certainly should be, continue with your regimen. Don’t get so caught up in the festivities that you forget or skip doses of your medications.
2. PLAN AHEAD
• Planning ahead can help you stick to your routine, navigate and choose the festivities you want to attend, avoid last minute shopping and devise a plan to handle potential problems if and when they arise.
3. KNOW THE WARNING SIGNS & DON’T IGNORE THEM
• You know your symptoms better than anyone. If you keep a journal or mood chart, pay attention to changes. Don’t let them slowly increase in duration or frequency. Making a plan with your doctor or therapist will help you sidestep any potential pitfalls.
4. KNOW YOUR LIMITS
• Knowing your limits is important in helping you stay healthy. Limits can include holiday spending beyond your means, accepting too many party invitations, staying out too late, over extending how much you can versus “should” get done, over indulgence on office cookies and treats, imbibing on holiday toasts, not getting enough sleep, being in large crowds…there are so many ways you could over extend.
• If large gatherings aren’t your thing or cause you too much angst, explain to your family or hostess that as much as you’d like to attend, it is not in your best interest. Offer instead to get together one to one to wrap gifts, decorate the house or share a favorite holiday recipe.
• If your funds are limited, suggest doing a gift exchange rather than buying a gift for everyone in your family, circle of friends or book club. Suggest a cookie recipe exchange rather than store bought gifts or make a donation (they won’t know the amount) to a favorite charity. If you know going to a crowded mall with 1000s of other frenzied shoppers will push you to your limit, consider gift cards or online shopping. If there is a must-have item that you can’t get online, ask a friend or co-worker to pick it up for you (they’re probably going anyway!).
5. ASK FOR HELP
• As part of the plan you prepared in advance, have a few trusted friends or family members who are aware of your situation on the ready to assist you if you begin to feel overwhelmed. Let them know you might be calling them and would appreciate their support.
• Discuss in advance with your doctor, what red flags should prompt you to call for an appointment.
• Prepare a list of phone numbers you can use if and when the situation warrants it: *suicide hotline, *your psychiatrist or therapist, *a clergy member, *friends.
• Ask your doctor or therapist if s/he will be away for the holidays. If so, get the back up number of whoever is covering their patients.
6. KEEP IT SIMPLE
• Let go of the notion of the perfect “Hallmark” holiday and instead, focus on the joy of the moment.
• Be realistic. Your illness and stress do not disappear just because it’s “the most wonderful time of the year.”
• Focus on what really matters to you. Do what you want and can realistically handle, forget the rest.
All the helpful tips aside, some will still have difficulty during the holiday season. Feelings of sadness, loneliness, anxiety, or depression may just hang on. Do not suffer in silence. Remember, 1 in 4 has a mental illness, YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
Congratulations, you’ve read the article, so you’re on the right track. Start your survival plan now and have a wonderful holiday.
To Your Health,
International Bipolar Foundation
Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles.