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9 Ways I Survive the Holiday Season as Someone With a Mental Illness

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Author’s Note: Many people with mental illnesses find the holidays really help them achieve mental wellness and find their families to be super supportive. That’s awesome! I wrote this for folks whose families are not supportive of their recovery.

If TV is any indicator, we should all be happy and loving during this time of year. Some of us, however, feel stressed and frustrated during this time — and living with a mental illness makes this time of year even harder. Despite what mental illness you live with, if your family is not supportive of you it makes this time of year really suck. For those who have lost family members to suicide, it’s hard because there is an empty plate at the table that’s a constant reminder your family member is no longer with us. Some of my friends were kicked out of their homes for stuff they did when they were really struggling with their mental illness, and it makes this time of year really lonely. For me, as a person who lives with anxiety and depression, this time of year makes these symptoms worse for me (worrying about the past and the future) in an environment that isn’t always supportive. It also highlights the difference between me and my peers who didn’t have to fight mental illness — because the years I spent surviving, they were thriving in their jobs and lives.

The holidays can be great for some, but for me, and many people I know, they are more of a nightmare that compromises the mental wellness we fight so hard for. So how do you have a good holiday while living with a mental illness? I am going to share with you a couple ideas I’ve had that have worked for me (they may not work for everyone). I am sharing these things in the interest of conversation — so please let me know what works for you! 

1. Find something you enjoy doing during the holidays. Make plans to go see an out -of-town friend, or have a friend oriented X-mas party with friends who understand mental illness. Try and keep up with the activities you enjoy year round. If you have a favorite chocolate, meal or whatever, make it a goal to put some funds aside to attain that. Buy yourself a gift, large or small, to celebrate getting through this year (because even if this year was hard for you, you are still here, you beat mental illness this year, and you should celebrate).

2. Say no. Especially if you feel pressure to hang out folks who ask things like, “Why aren’t you over your depression yet?” or “Do you know how you being suicidal affects this family” or any other non-supportive thing — saying no is especially important this time of year. We feel the need to go to parties and see people who aren’t supportive of our mental health recovery. When you can, say no to hanging out with these people. When you feel like you can’t say no, schedule other events or activities that mean you will only be there for a short while.

3. Seek support from those who you love to be around. Spend time with friends, or even volunteer your time. Charities are always looking for an extra hand this time of year, especially after all the donations they tend to receive on Christmas. Your mental health is especially important during this time of year when you will be exposing yourself to extra stress and triggers. Make sure to keep your scheduled appointments with your care team and go to them – if your therapist’s office is closed, try checking out online services if you can. Things like 7 Cups of Tea and TalkLife are informal online supports that are there to support you and understand how hard holidays with a mental illness can be.  

 4. Turn off the TV. The media is flushed with images of the perfect family, friends and life this time of year. Actually, almost all the time, but it seems to increase this time of year. We really don’t need to be watching the same movies and holiday specials. These specials have often left me beating myself up and saying things like, maybe if I didn’t struggle with mental illness I could have that. So try and find entertainment in other movies or shows, or even go play in the newly fallen snow. 

 5. Do something on New Year’s. Sometimes it feels like it can be easier to self-isolate when you’re living with a mental illness – and I know it might seem easier to spend New Year’s alone. For me, this has always triggered a downward thought spiral – seeing everyone else having fun and feeling that my depression and anxiety stop that from happening. So, try and do something for New Year’s with whatever energy you have. Even if it’s just you and your friend sitting at home playing board games. If no one is around, take yourself for a walk through a local park or local celebration and just enjoy the energy and music. If it’s OK for you, go and see fireworks as they are always lovely on New Year’s Eve.

6. Support or create sober/dry events. I know New Year’s and the holidays can be a real struggle for folks who have addiction issues – plan holiday celebrations that are dry or keep addiction issues in mind.

7. Make (obtainable) New Year’s Resolutions. If you partake in this tradition, try and write out a reasonable plan about how you are going to attain this goal. Trying to achieve vague goals is hard if you don’t have a plan for how to achieve them. Try and set smaller goals to achieve your goals. Try, “I want to learn what makes me happy by trying a few new dialectical behavior therapy or cognitive behavior therapy skills,” instead of, “I want to defeat depression.”

8. Remember: you are awesome. During this time of year, I notice a lot of what’s wrong with myself and my relationships. (Thanks, Anxiety and Depression!) Try and look at all the things that are good for you right now. Even if it’s a pet or the fact you survived another year! Your life will be awesome, as you deserve an awesome life and the world wants to see the amazing things I know you have to offer it. So, if you are feeling hopeless about mental health recovery this holiday season, try and research therapy options you are going to do in the new year. If you have people around who don’t support your recovery, make a plan to remove or limit their presence in your life. Nothing is a better gift to yourself than the gift of happiness and attempting to live the life you want.

9. And (this goes for all year) don’t listen to crap. Gossip/drama is big this time of year, and engaging in it is tempting, but try and walk away from it. Especially for those of us who live with anxiety, it can cause more stress in your life than it’s worth. In my family, people tend to gossip about the mental wellness of other family members. If you feel up to it, try to shut this down – especially if it’s clear they don’t intend to reach out and support this person. If you’re worried about someone you only see during the holidays – know it’s completely OK to reach out and ask them how they are doing. Have some therapy resources in their hometown ready in case they are also struggling with mental illness but don’t know where to go.

The next few weeks might be stressful. There will be a lot of reflection about the last year and a focus on why 2017 will be better. Celebrate that you have beaten another year and reflect on what therapy and support will help you get through these times. Whatever you need to keep your mental illness in check over the holidays is totally valid.

In closing, I wish you all an amazing and happy holiday season. I hope you find happiness wherever you want it.

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Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: December 22, 2016
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