How to manage your mental illness over Christmas

23/12/2019

Lots of food, (too much) drink, family, presents, endless repeats of Mrs Browns’ Boys… while Christmas is marketed as a time for joy, for many - if not all of us - it comes with significant challenges. Especially so for those of us affected by mental illness. We asked some of our supporters how they felt about Christmas and what steps they take to look after themselves over the festive period. This is what they told us:

"Magic", but difficult memories

Lauren, who lives with anxiety and depression and who has experienced psychosis, loves Christmas because of “the festivities, the emphasis on family and friends, the magic my husband and I have with my daughter”. But she says it also brings back difficult memories, “I also have a lot of anxiety around this time of year. It is roughly around this time I first experienced psychosis many years ago, so I do always get 'the fear' around this time anyway.” 

"Mixed bag"

Tim, a carer, feels Christmas is a “mixed bag”. “The excitement and anticipation of Christmas can sometimes lead to emotional overload - how are we going to cope with seeing lots of family, what happens if our little nieces don't like the presents, that kind of thing. Even the sense of occasion can lead to feelings of guilt and failure if Christmas isn't the great time it ‘should’ be.”

"Tricky period" 

Jane who lives with bipolar disorder told us that Christmas can be a “tricky period” – “there is a sense of enforced merriment, which may not correspond with the mood of the person in question. It can be a strain to have to act and exude happiness around others. It can lead to exhaustion and it leaves feelings of guilt and inauthenticity.” Jane also flags that “the month-long focus upon food can be relentless for a person suffering from an eating disorder. There is no getting away from it. Others reporting that they have gained weight – and that they need to lose it - due to Christmas excess can trigger difficult feelings as well.” 

Hardest time of the year

For some, Christmas is a very difficult time of the year. Sarah, who lives with anxiety, depression and a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder told us “this year will be one of the hardest. I’ve spent the past month under the care of my local mental health crisis team and the only way I’ve been able to manage things this time round is to accept that it’s ok not to have festive cheer. It’s ok not to put a tree up this year, not to write cards or visit Winter Wonderland… If I forced myself to go along with everything I’ve done in other years, I’d only end up more frustrated and angrier with how things are right now. As soon as I take the pressure off, I feel lighter.” 

  • “There is a sense of enforced merriment, which may not correspond with the mood of the person in question."

Top tips on how to deal with the holidays

So, it’s fair to say that Christmas is not a walk in the park for everyone. But what can we do to help to relieve the pressure at this time of year? Here are our favourite top tips from supporters: 

Acceptance

It is important to remember that Christmas, just like mental illness, affects people in so many different ways. Sarah explains, “Nobody knows what everyone else is going through behind the family Christmas card poses, but when you’re in a dark place yourself it can be easy to think the world is floating on a cloud of bliss while you’re drowning. Acceptance is my main tool for this festive season. Accepting who I am, where I am and what I’m able to do right now, and nothing more.” 

Plan, but don't be afraid to say no

Lauren says “If you had a broken leg you wouldn't volunteer to do a marathon so if you have a mental health condition you have to make sure you don't feel you are putting your mental endurance to the test.”

Ruth Ward on Facebook says, “My top tip would be it is ok to say no. No to overspending, no to seeing certain people, no to being pressured to socialise, no to decorating the house.”

On the other hand, trying something new may prove helpful. Teresa Howells says via Facebook, “Don’t be afraid to say no but don’t be afraid to try something new either. If you go/do something new and then find you don’t like it, you can always stop and go home.”

Create your own traditions and expectations 

Tim says, “simple things: a film that we watch every year, a special meal that we have just before the 'big day', being kind to ourselves about wider family engagements; these are the kinds of things that help.”

Prioritise your sleep

Lauren says, “Sleep is definitely key in helping your stamina for the Christmas season. I make sure I get early nights where I can and don't stay up too late.”

  • “If you had a broken leg you wouldn't volunteer to do a marathon so if you have a mental health condition you have to make sure you don't feel you are putting your mental endurance to the test.”

Keep things simple and limit your time on social media

Sarah says “I can’t compare Sarah of Christmas Present to Sarah of Christmas Pasts, or look at who Sarah will be in Christmas future. It’s too much for my head to deal with. So, I just need to keep things simple and focus on my recovery. Life envy is a huge trigger, so I’ve been avoiding Facebook and Instagram as I know that can really make my thoughts spiral.”

Take a break and do something you love 

“At Christmas time (and all holidays in fact), my husband and I take steps to make sure that for every intense and busy day we plan a day, or at least a few hours, down-time, me-time or just plain rest”, says Lena. “We call this ‘golden time’. Often, I use my golden time to do a hobby, like knitting, drawing or even watching documentaries, sitting under my weighted blanked as I find this seems to reset me somehow… It is hard to plan for crises, but we have learned to anticipate them and prepare.”

Sean Graham (via Twitter) says that exercise can help you get through the Christmas period, “Do some sort of exercise. Even if it is to go swimming on your own or join a local walking or running group. There's no need make conversation or put too much effort in it. The understanding that you are doing something that everyone else is around you can have a dramatic impact.”

However you tackle the Christmas period, if you’re having a difficult time and want to chat to someone, the Samaritans are available 24/7 on 116 123 or via Jo@samaritans.org

If you would like information on how you can access care and support you can email our Advice and Information Team. You can view our opening hours here.

 

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