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When the Cost of Mania Skyrockets During the Holidays

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The holiday season for many is a time of celebration, joy, and excitement. For others, it can be a time of sorrow, remembrance, and difficulty. Just as most things in life, the holidays can become particularly complicated for those with mental illnesses or mental health challenges. Holidays are anxiety-provoking for many as well, as stressors such as family gatherings, planning for events, or higher-than-normal levels of social interactions can exacerbate feelings of being overwhelmed. From my own personal experiences as someone with bipolar disorder, the holidays are easily warped by mood swings, and mania can lead to some very damaging behaviors and consequences.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

For anyone unfamiliar with this characteristic symptom of many mood and personality disorders, mania is an atypically-elevated mood state involving feelings of euphoria, high energy, and excitability. Manic episodes are unique for each person and can manifest in a number of different ways, such as hyper-attentiveness, increased productivity, increased desires for socialization, increased anxiety, and many others. One common manifestation of mania is impulsivity, or thoughts and desires to engage in or perform certain actions or behaviors without significant prior consideration for benefits or consequences. While not always true for every person who experiences this, impulsive thoughts and actions tend to be engaging behaviors that are otherwise undesirable to the person when they are not manic. So, what does manic-impulsivity have to do with the holidays, you may be wondering?

My manic impulses tend to always manifest as excessive shopping habits and desires, and this is not an uncommon expression of impulsivity (not exclusive to bipolar manic-impulsivity either). Even outside of the holidays, excessive shopping really shoots me in the foot. As a graduate student with a low-paying job, more medical bills than I’d like to recognize, and costs of living in an expensive city, I don’t have a lot of extra money laying around for exuberant shopping sprees at the mall or online. Even when my bank account is empty and my credit card debt is high, my manic self tends to care very little about the ramifications of buying new camera equipment accessories or books or computer programs. It’s only after my mania has subsided that I then have to address the mess I’ve made, surrounded by new stuff I don’t need or no longer want, and a lack of money I was already short on or more credit card debt.

The winter holidays in particular have become characterized by consumerism culture and constant pushing to “buy, buy, buy.” With all of those things being pushed on everyone through ads, billboards, and social media campaigns, it’s easy to see how the impulse to buy more than one can afford can impact anyone, even those without mania or atypical impulsivity challenges. But, for anyone like me, a constant encouragement from the world to shop and “treat yourself” can not only play into my manic symptoms and make them worse, they can actually trigger manic episodes altogether.

In the past, I’ve had manic episodes during the holidays turn out more damaging than episodes any other time of the year, and there are a couple of reasons for that. First, there already exists a pervasive stigma and culture of shame around mania. Many don’t understand it or believe it’s a real thing, especially impulsivity (“Why don’t you just stop yourself?” people will say, as if that’s somehow helpful). That doesn’t breed great feelings of wanting to recognize damaging behaviors or mindsets, and it especially discourages asking or seeking help. Who wants to admit they need help if they are only going to be shamed for it all?

Second, with the society we live in today, anyone who expresses they actively work to resist shopping during the holidays is seen as counter-cultural, rebellious, and “a real Scrooge.” The expectation from the world is clear: During the holidays, you celebrate by buying things for yourself and others. But, for those like me who are prone to manic shopping, or those who have shopping addictions (yes, that’s a real thing, but a topic for a different writer and a different article), the holiday expectation for splurging can make life very, very difficult.

Third, the increased emphasis on family and friends during the holidays, in theory, sounds like it should help with mental illnesses in general, and for some it does. For me, even though I love my family and friends, too much exposure to them quickly becomes anxiety-provoking and takes a real toll on my mood and mental state. I have to be careful to take care of myself when the holidays come around and I’m expected to be more social than “normal,” but having to police myself in that respect, and practicing self-restraint with shopping can quickly become very tiring and exhausting.

I couldn’t even give you a guess how many times the holidays, winter holidays in particular, have skyrocketed my mood and my debt. It’s always a difficult time of year for me, even without considering the mania and impulsive shopping. However, I have figured out a couple of key things to help, and they may be helpful for you if you face similar difficulties.

One big thing is I have created a blanket rule across all my relationships: I don’t give gifts. I tell everyone it isn’t personal (and the proof of that is how it is so generalized across my life, so I’m not singling people out). There are other, and frankly better, ways to express thankfulness for someone in your life or show your appreciation for people than gift-giving. While some people do highly value giving and receiving gifts, it isn’t fair to impose that on everyone all the time, especially for people who face manic shopping impulses or shopping addictions. So, I’ve found in my life just saying, “no one gets a gift from me” allows me to fight the urges to over-shop, and gives me an opportunity to be creative with how I celebrate people.

If the holidays are difficult for you because of your relationship with shopping and the detrimental effects it has on your life, know that you’re not along in any of that. There is a large community of people (larger than I think society would like to admit) who struggle with this every year. But, we owe it to ourselves to find solutions and coping mechanisms for manic impulsivity during the holidays. Over-spending can be incredibly dangerous for some people, particularly those in socio-economic positions where they do not have the luxury of affording luxury. It’s important we recognize that, honor that as a society, and as individuals, prioritize our own minds and pocketbooks over what the holidays may want us to do.

Unsplash image by Vasily Koloda

Originally published: November 10, 2021
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