Holidays and Mental Illness: Why is this time of year so difficult?

The holiday season can be a very difficult time for any of us. There can be a lot of stress, worry, and a general feeling of anxiety with our calendars quickly filling up, making travel plans, spending money on gifts, and so on. For those living with mental illness, however, the holidays can be physically and mentally exhausting.

This time of year can be extremely challenging for those in recovery and living with addiction, completely overwhelming for those suffering from BPD, ADHD, anxiety disorders, relationship problems, and more.

The stress and pressure of the season can amplify symptoms, and create an extremely difficult time for those with mental illness. In this issue, we are going to discuss the ways in which you can help and support your loved one (or yourself!) during the holiday season.

Coping With Holiday Stress and Anxiety

For many people, the holiday season is not the most wonderful time of the year. Whether dealing with grief and depression from missing a loved one who has passed, or struggling with addiction issues that make holiday parties and gatherings difficult, stress and anxiety can be amplified. 

Understanding why this time of year can be difficult for those with mental illness is almost as important in as learning how to best cope - or help a loved one cope - with the specific issues triggers faced during the holiday season.

Continue reading to discover common triggers that make this time of year one of stress and anxiety, instead of one full of joy. 

Common Triggers During the Holidays

Many try to prepare months in advance for what the holiday season is about to bestow upon them. While many are out shopping for gifts, decorating their homes, or planning holiday gatherings, those with mental illness are preparing for the triggers that can make a holiday gathering - or the entire holiday season - a living nightmare.

Family Conflict

Some families have internal conflicts that seem to reach a boiling point during the holiday season. Whether it's due to being the only time of year everyone is together, alcohol or other influences at play, or mental illness throughout the family, the holidays can trigger manic episodes, high levels of anxiety or stress, or relapses in those with addition and recovery issues.

Quick Fix: Remove yourself from the situation, set limits on what you are prepared to handle ahead of time, have a friend on standby that will come and get you or spend time talking on the phone, have a quiet place where you can go to be away from the situation.

Striving for Perfection

For those hosting holiday gatherings while trying to manage symptoms of their illnesses, it can be like walking a tightrope. Those suffering from ADHD or OCD, the need to have things "just so" can be overwhelming. Feeling that anything could go wrong at any minute or that your meal may not be up to par can cause worry, anxiety and stress.

Quick Fix: When possible, allow someone else to host dinners, parties, or festivities, and keep your home a respite from all that is going on around you. Have a trusted friend or family member provide reassurance and gentle reminders that the season isn't about perfection. Remember that your perfection isn't necessarily someone else - and that's okay.

Loss of a Loved One

The holidays can be especially difficult for those that are grieving the loss of a loved one. Memories of past holiday gatherings - whether good or bad - can trigger an overwhelming sense of grief, leading to depression, anxiety, addiction relapse, and more. It is important to understand that the loss doesn't have to be recent, and there are no rules on grief. If the issue is a yearly one that rears its head fully during the holiday season, accept it. There is no time limit on grief, nor any standards that one must conform to when dealing with the loss of a loved one.

Quick Fix: There isn't a quick fix for grief. However, accepting the way you feel and understanding that it is okay to be sad when thinking about your loved one is imperative. Take the time you need, and do your best to continue on with your life during this time of year.

Sensory Overload

From crowded shopping malls to lights, lights, everywhere, the holiday season can be an overwhelming time for our senses. Those with anxiety issues (social or generalized), ADHD, and other conditions that are sensitive to sights, sounds, and smells, for example, would rather "chew glass" than insert themselves into situations that will create sensory overload. And that is okay. What one may consider the "sights and sounds" of the holidays, another may consider a personal hell.

Quick Fix: When possible, don't participate in the events that trigger overload. It's okay to do your shopping online, and perfectly fine to decline an invite to 4am Black Friday shopping. When forced to be in these situations (a child's musical concert/school play), find a quiet place that you can retreat to, if the need arises.

Medication

It is very important that a regular medication schedule is kept. With the chaos and flurry of activity during the holiday season, keeping a regular schedule can be difficult. However, mental health patients must be unflinchingly rigid with their medications. Skipping a dose, over (or under) medicating, or stopping medication altogether, can have detrimental effects on symptom management and overall well-being.

Quick Fix: There is no quick fix when it comes to medication. If necessary, set an alarm for those times that medication needs to be taken.

While there are a myriad of other triggers that can cause issue for mental health patients, the above are common triggers that can be experienced - especially during the holidays.

Finding Joy

Your joy may not be someone else's joy - and that is okay. Focusing on yourself through self-care, love, and acceptance of what is good for you is the foundation of being able to be a supporting, caring friend or family member to others. There are no rules as to what is required of anyone during the holidays.  Hold on to the events and people that make you feel good, and stay away from the things and people that don't.

If you are faced with triggers, accept help from loved ones when offered. It's okay to say no, and decline invitations. Focusing on your own health and well-being is paramount, and those that care for you will accept and encourage that.

If you are a loved one of someone with a mental health issue, be understanding. Their triggers may seem "silly", but they are very real to the person experiencing them. Avoid telling someone to "suck it up" or "get over it". If it were that easy to do, it would be done.

The holiday season should be a time of love, celebration, family, and friends - each with a unique set of circumstances. Accepting each person for the individual that they are will do a long way in showing your sincere care and acceptance.

From all of us, we wish you and yours a wonderful holiday season!

Tanner Oliver