The holidays may be touted as the most wonderful time of the year, but for 64 percent of people with mental illness, they are a time that makes mental health conditions worse. The holidays bring increased stress, financial worry, and disrupted routine for much of society, but the impact is felt especially strongly among people struggling with their mental health. If you are among the people who are dreading the holidays, you are not alone.
Specific Mental Health Concerns
A variety of mental health concerns are often made worse by stress. These are just a few examples:
- Schizophrenia – increased hallucinations and delusions
- Bipolar disorder – both mania and depression can be triggered
- Depression – symptoms often increase due to loneliness and stress
- Anxiety – heightened by changes in routine and being unsure of what to expect
Preparing for the Season
Leading up to the holidays, it is important to have a plan for how you will stay healthy and what you will do if you start to feel overwhelmed.
- Self-care – Consider what has helped you to successfully manage your mental health the rest of the year. This might include things like therapy, exercise, medications, hobbies, a consistent bedtime, and a healthy diet. Be sure to prioritize these things before, during, and after times of increased stress, like the holiday season.
- Consider arranging an advocate – If you are not comfortable telling the people who invite you to gatherings what your limits are, consider asking a trusted friend or family member to help you relay your needs. Whether you are utilizing an advocate or working with the hosts directly, make time to talk about your needs in advance so that they can be integrated into the planning process. Your advocate can also be someone to touch base with during the holidays if you start feeling overwhelmed.
- Manage expectations – By planning ahead, it may be easier to ensure that everyone involved has realistic expectations. You and the people you are gathering with can communicate what you each hope will happen and let each other know if those expectations are likely to be met.
Preparing for Individual Events
The holidays do not necessarily have to be such a difficult time for people who are mentally ill. Holidays can be made more enjoyable and less stressful for everyone involved, including people with mental health conditions.
- Keep gatherings short – it is easier for most people to manage 2 hours of activity than an all-day event. If you are worried about your ability to cope at a long event, consider expressing your concerns to the host and asking which portion of the event is most important for you to attend.
- Find out what is going to happen in advance:
- What are the start and end times?
- How will you get to and from the event? If you become overly stressed, does this mode of transportation allow you to leave early?
- Where are the festivities occurring?
- Who are the people who will attend? Can you bring a support person with you?
- What is the menu?
- What activities are scheduled? Are any of these activities likely to be triggers for you?
- Is there a safe space to go if you become overwhelmed and need a break? What coping skills can you use if things get stressful, such as deep breathing, going for a walk, meditation, etc.?
- Stick to routines as much as possible – structure and schedules are coping skills many people rely on to preserve their mental health. If possible, let your host know what your non-negotiables are in your schedule. If you need time in your day to exercise, have to be home by a certain time to get to bed, or need extra time in the mornings to account for effects of your medications, make this known.
- Remove unnecessary stressors entirely – shopping for holiday gifts, being required to prepare a dish for a potluck, or other holiday activities might be stressful for a person with mental illness. Allow yourself to opt out of certain things if they create unnecessary stress for you.
- Recognize that you have the right to say no – if a certain event is simply not a good fit for you this year, you are allowed to decline the invitation. It might make more sense for you to start a new tradition, where you schedule one-on-one or small group gatherings with the people involved; this way you still get to see them but on terms better suited for your well-being.
At Highland Hospital in West Virginia, we work with people with a wide range of mental health concerns. We are happy to help our clients develop individualized plans for managing stressful situations and making the most of their time with loved ones.