Mental illnesses do not take time off for the holidays. And while schools, colleges, and offices are taking a break to celebrate the festive season and ring in the New Year, now is not the time to take time off of caring for our mental health. In fact, nothing triggers mental health challenges more than the December holidays. No matter how improved or in control one’s mental health disorders may be, the last two weeks of the year can provoke a resurgence of social anxiety disorders, stress, eating disorders, body image challenges, depression, anger issues, grief, sleep deprivation, and more.
The already precipitous stability someone with a mental illness has strived so hard all year to establish—often working with a team of medical professionals, balancing medications and securing ongoing supports—can be thrown completely out of equilibrium during the build-up to the holidays--and the toll from those last days of the year can be detrimental to one's mental wellbeing.
For weeks—even months—before the December celebrations, every self-help and fashion magazine is filled with tips and tricks to survive the year-end festivities. Wading through the surplus of pedestrian advice can be daunting and of little help. However, several reliable sources do provide some common sense and easily overlooked recommendations to assist people with mental health challenges to survive this special time of the year.
In her article last week for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), writer Colleen O’Day suggested some coping tips to maintain mental wellness. Of foremost importance, O’Day advises people to keep their therapy appointments. “Although the holiday season is overwhelmingly busy, do not cancel your therapy sessions to make time for other activities,” she wrote. “The holidays can bring up difficult emotions. If you can, keep your scheduled therapy sessions to ensure you have built-in time to explore anything that comes up.”
As well as keeping appointments with professional therapists, O’Day suggests looking to mindfulness exercises as a way to support daily wellness. Smart phone users have access to countless mental health apps [many free ones] and there are lists of mental health websites for use in Canada and the U.S., but O’Day recommends “the online Mindfulness Toolkit created by the Masters of Social Work program at the University of Southern California, featuring free mindfulness resources, like guided meditations for beginners,” she explained. The toolkit also includes exercises in breathing, stress reduction, listening, and concentration.
As important as keeping up with therapy appointments during the holidays, it is paramount to maintain any medication routines already in place. Irregular hours, odd eating patterns and late nights are characteristic of year-end celebrations, and can make medicating a challenge, but treatment doses and timetables must be a priority for wellness.
O’Day also recommends against using additional drugs or alcohol to manage the added stress that results from holiday family and social gatherings. “While the prospect of escape can be appealing,” she wrote, “substance use can ultimately worsen your issues.”
According to an article on the website of the American Psychological Association (APA), it may be more helpful to anticipate the holidays not with dread, but with a positive mindset and optimistic outlook—recognizing them as opportunities to “enhance . . . psychological wellbeing”.
The APA’s advice includes taking “time for yourself”, volunteering, maintaining “realistic expectations” and reminding oneself of what is really important at this time of the year—family, good health, and time spent in enjoyable activities. Above all, however, the APA suggests that if the tips supplied in its holiday article are “not helpful and you are feeling stressed and overwhelmed, consult with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional . . . [to] develop an action plan”.
Dr. Charles Raison, CNNHealth’s mental health expert in 2012, wrote about a method he uses with patients all year-round. “[The] holidays, [impose] upon us once again a template for what happiness and interpersonal success is expected to look like,” wrote Raison. Instead of being forced to choose between the emotional upheaval of visiting family or the depression of being alone over the holidays, Raison suggests “reframing” the choices and finding a third option by answering the question: Who says?
“Who says things have to be the way you think they should be?" he asks. "Who says you have to suffer over a painful fantasy of what you think Christmas ought to be?"
Raison has encouraged patients to try taking a vacation away instead of resorting to past choices. The vacation may benefit the patient’s mental health and may lead other family members to join, or re-evaluate some long-held traditions and find ways to make positive changes.
Raison suggests loosening our hold on fantasies and expectations of the holiday season. In this way, he suggests, “we can see new possibilities for how to be at peace with our lives and find a little joy”.
Finally, in a recent article for its website on tips for coping with the holidays, Mayo Clinic staff suggested maintaining healthy habits for overall wellness, including: eating healthy snacks, getting “plenty of sleep”, and “incorporating regular physical activity into each day”.
Like Colleen O’Day’s advice, the Mayo Clinic article also emphasizes the importance of seeking professional help if self-care is not enough. “Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, . . . unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, . . . If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.”
American Psychological Association. (Retrieved December 22, 2017). Making the most of the holiday season. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/holiday-season.aspx
Mayo Clinic [Staff]. (Retrieved December 21, 2017). Mayo Clinic. Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for coping. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/art-20047544?pg=1
O’Day, C., (December 19, 2017). National Alliance on Mental Health. Managing Your Mental Health During The Holidays. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/December-2017/Managing-Your-Mental-Health-During-the-Holidays
Raison, C., M.D., (December 24, 2012). CNN.com. When the holidays trigger depression. http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/24/health/holiday-depression-blues/index.html