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Mental health and the holidays: Self-care for the season

Let’s face it, the holiday season can be stressful, with all the travel and financial strain and extra family time. Tis the season to be under pressure! Many people feel overwhelmed regardless of their situation or status, but, as Matthew Runyan, MD, section chief, PPG Psychiatry Hospital Section, points out, this time of year is even more difficult for individuals who have a mental health disorder. Here, he offers some suggestions for things to keep in mind this holiday.

Be aware

Like any good party or event, taking care of yourself during the holidays requires some prep work. Before things get hectic and intense, take a step back and think about what stresses you or your loved one out. Are there certain triggers that occur during the holidays? Does the lack of sleep and all of the holiday plans just get to be too much? 

For people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) especially, there can be memories or interactions that cause severe reactions. Trying to identify and be aware of those triggers can save a lot of stress and potential breakdowns.

Perhaps it’s the first Christmas after a relative has passed, or meeting with family puts someone in close contact with a perpetrator of abuse. I’ve met people whose symptoms were triggered simply by the smell of a Christmas tree or seeing the chair their grandpa used to sit in before he died. Think about who in your family, yourself included, may struggle with memories or interactions and be sensitive and understanding of them. 

Often overlooked, is general self-care. Make sure you get enough sleep. Eat healthy foods as much as possible. A few indulgent meals here or there is fine, just don’t let it take things off track. Get some exercise. If you or your loved one are on medication, make sure they are on hand and taken as ordered. Address these upcoming stressors during therapy sessions. Most importantly, have fun! The holidays are supposed to be filled with happy, joyful events. Don’t get stuck in the details and stressful mundane things. Try to focus on the positive aspects, whenever possible.

Plan ahead

Now that you are aware of what might be a stressor, it’s time to get prepared. If someone has a known trigger or problem, put in place steps to reduce or avoid exposure. People with addiction issues, especially alcohol, struggle with the holidays, as most celebrations seem to serve alcohol. If someone you know and will be around during the season has an addiction, try to be understanding. Don’t offer them a drink, and find an area where they can be comfortable and not tempted to relapse. 

For those people who have social anxiety or the aforementioned PTSD, try and have a quieter area with less noise and chaos for them to move toward if things are getting to be too much.  Many people with mental health disorders feel left out or ostracized during the holidays, so make an effort to include them in activities that everyone is comfortable with.

If you know you’re heading into an event with potential triggers, have a strategy for coping or a way to leave the situation. Discuss the exit strategy and use it if needed. Regardless of how great your preparations, planning and actions are, sometimes things just go wrong. If something does happen, know what to do. That may mean just leaving and getting away from the situation. It might be a matter of knowing who to call. If someone is active in support groups or treatments, having a therapist or sponsor available to talk with can be helpful. Have emergency numbers to call or text if your usual supports aren’t available. Know what to do before things get bad so it’s easier to act and get help if they do. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or offer help if it seems needed. 

If the situation is dangerous, and you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts or safety concerns, call 911 or go to the emergency room. 

Talk about it

So, we’ve prepared and planned for the holidays, now it’s time to thrive (or sometimes just mentally survive). It’s incredibly beneficial to be open and honest with at least one other person. If you’re attending a an event you know will be stressful, share your plan with someone you trust. If you are that trusted person, be open and available to them. You are their safety net. 

One of the worst things to feel over the holidays is lonely, and many people with mental health issues already feel different from “everyone else”. Allowing them to be open and honest to the degree they are comfortable with helps them feel included and a part of the celebration as opposed to being on the outside looking in. The most important thing is to be honest. Don’t try and hang on or tough it out through a bad situation. If someone seems to be struggling, ask them about it. The simple idea of not being alone in a tough situation can often be enough to make it tolerable. As one of my previous teachers told me, “Never worry alone!”

If the holidays are difficult and you are in treatment, perhaps it’s time to increase the frequency of therapy, or discuss medication changes with your doctor. Make sure you make those appointments before a problem worsens. Consider it part of your prep work.  

Key takeaways

The holidays can be amazing times, full of memories and laughter. Plan for the worst and enjoy the best. If things don’t go well, make sure there is a plan in place to minimize the problems.  Have honest conversations about potential or active problems. Most importantly, if things do go badly don’t be angry or down on yourself. Nobody is perfect, and the holidays have a way of bringing out an incredible amount of stress in an extremely short period of time. Look back at what went wrong and most importantly why it went wrong, so that next year you can be better prepared or avoid the situation entirely. Being hard on yourself or dwelling on the situation is just going to make those negative emotions last longer or get worse, so recognize they are there and try to deal with them appropriately. Plan on making better choices or reactions next time and include those ideas in next year’s plans. 


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