Surviving the Holidays When You Have a Mental Illness

For most people, the holidays are a time of joy and celebration. However, for many people with mental illnesses, the yuletide cheer is accompanied by added challenges. This is true for those with various diagnoses. Consider the following:

1. For people with depression, the joy and festivities of the holiday season seem to amplify their own inability to experience pleasure. As families and friends come together, they may withdraw. To make matters worse, Christmas falls right around the shortest day of the year, so the lack of sunlight can be a huge trigger for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a type of depression which occurs in the fall and winter months.

2. For people with anxiety, being around large groups of unfamiliar people can be terrifying. Christmas parties, crowded shopping malls, even visits with unfamiliar (or unkind) relatives can be extra-stressful.

3. For people with anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, the large amounts of foods, particularly “treats,” that are part and parcel of holiday events can induce major anxiety. So can the enormously triggering “diet talk” that often accompanies holiday feasts and intensifies near New Years.

4. For people with alcoholism, the endless parade of holiday parties and events where alcohol is present makes it difficult to socialize normally or enjoy the typical gatherings with family and friends.

5. For people with ADHD, there is the added stress of final exams, Christmas shopping, decorating, parties, and visiting relatives, which can make them feel more scattered and disorganized than usual.

So how do you cope with mental illness during the holiday season?

Here are some tips which may be helpful, regardless of your particular diagnosis:

1.) Plan ahead. Create a written list of potential problems that could arise around the holidays. Think about various ways that you could handle these situations, and write down your solutions. Visualize yourself handling these difficult situations with grace and strength.

2.) Enlist social support. Talk to people you trust – your therapist, family members, or friends – about your concerns. Let them know how they can help you through this difficult time. People are more than willing to be more generous and charitable than usual at this time of year!

3.) Maintain good health habits. Get at least 8 hours of sleep per night, eat plenty of healthful foods, exercise regularly, and drink in moderation (if at all). Many people stop engaging in health-promoting behaviors around the holidays. If you struggle with a mental illness, this is the time to be extra-conscientious about caring for your physical and mental health.

4.) Focus on the protective factors associated with Christmas. Despite the myth that rates of suicides increase around the holidays, scientific research actually shows that suicide rates are lower than average in the days before Christmas. This may be due to several issues:
• Increased support from family and friends, who tend to gather together around the holidays
• Increased sense of charity and goodwill from others
• More community support – shelters, food banks, charities for the poor
• For many people, Christmas is associated with positive memories of hope and love and family, which can help improve outlook when things seem bleak
• Increase in religious observance and spirituality associated with Christmas

5.) Lower your expectations. Yes, the holidays are seen by many as “the most wonderful time of the year,” as the song goes. But stress and personal problems do not magically disappear during the holidays. It is not realistic to assume that you will be symptom-free simply because it is a holiday.

6.) Keep it simple. The holidays have become so commercialized, and so many demands are placed on people to throw and attend parties, buy and wrap lavish gifts, and cook like Julia Child on steroids, that many people are simply burnt out by the time Christmas arrives. Retailers love to extend the holiday season from Thanksgiving through New Years, but this is mostly for their own profit, and it doesn’t have to be this way. If you feel overwhelmed by stress, simply have a quiet, one-evening celebration with a few people of your choosing who are closest to you. There is no need to spend precious time and money getting people the perfect gifts. A simple card with a thoughtful note is sufficient to let people know you are thinking of them.

7.) Focus on what really matters. Remember the people of Whoville in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas? They showed us that Christmas can be joyful without presents and trees and decorations. These material things have no bearing on our ability to enjoy the holidays.

8.) In keeping with the Dr. Seuss example, think of your mental illness as the Grinch. It is a cold-hearted thief, with a heart three sizes too small, who will attempt to ruin your holiday. Don’t let it.

9.) Remember that parties are supposed to be fun and ARE ALWAYS OPTIONAL. You always dread your annual office party? Just don’t go. Let whomever is in charge know that you aren’t feeling well, or simply that you appreciate the invitation but you won’t be able to make it this year. It’s supposed to be a party, not a punishment.

10.) Do what’s fun; skip what’s not. If you love preparing Christmas dinner for your family, great! Enjoy! If not, hit up your local Chinese restaurant. Jews have had this tradition for decades.

3 Replies to “Surviving the Holidays When You Have a Mental Illness”

  1. #10 made me snort hot chocolate out my nose. Too funny!

    My mom and I are getting Chinese for lunch after our last session with my therapist tomorrow–does that count? 😉

  2. I love, love, love Christmas and this time of year (minus the cold weather), but it is stressful. I worry about all the food that’s around me. I worry that people are going to comment on my weight, that I look thin or that I look like I’ve lost weight. I worry that people are going to watch me to see how much, or little, I eat and then they (my parents mostly) will comment that I don’t eat enough. It stinks to always have to be prepared for someone I haven’t seen in a while to say something about my weight and try to come up with something witty to respond with, like, “NY is so expensive that I can’t afford food and I walk everywhere!” (That is partially true).

    I do wish I could just go home and enjoy every aspect of Christmas and not have to worry if I’m gaining a pound or two and freak out about feeling like I’ve eaten too much. It would be nice to just ENJOY!! I’m getting better at it, but it’s still hard.

    Good thing I’m not Jewish b/c I’m not a fan of Chinese food. 😉

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