The holiday season is a time filled with many happy things- family time, delicious food, parties, presents, travelling etc. but all those things can feel incredibly difficult if you’re battling mental illness.
I love Christmas, ALL of it, the cringey music that plays everywhere you go, the silly jumpers you wear, decorating the house and everything else that screams Christmas. But living with depression and anxiety has often times taken away that love and wished for it to be January as soon as possible. It’s hard knowing you should be happy and joyful but your mind is dark and struggling. Holiday seasons are actually when I find it most difficult. My anxiety feeds into this constant pressure of having to be happy 24/7 just because it’s Christmas. That’s not how life works and depression lives in your mind whatever time of year it is.
Last year I was in a completely different mental state than I am this year, I was struggling to see the light at the very long tunnel and it took everything in me to “celebrate”. The fact is Christmas is filled with chaos in most families, mine included and I think even someone who isn’t struggling with mental health can find it hard to be around all that craziness for so long. But with mental illness, there’s the added pressure of your mind, constantly spinning and trying to make it through everything without retreating to your dark room for days or experiencing the overwhelming anxiety is an huge task.
These tips don’t mean everything will feel easier, and for some they may not work but after several years of experiencing Christmas with that black cloud raining over me, I’ve learnt some coping mechanisms along the way.
1) Don’t apologise for needing space. It is completely normal to need time to yourself, whether it’s an extra long shower or going to the food shop on your own. I crave alone time so much to be able to keep my depression and anxiety at bay. Being around people so much during the holidays has at times driven me to lock myself in my room, turn all the lights off, put my headphones in, blast the music and have a long cry. That however is not a good way of coping, I’ve learnt to know when I’m getting to my limit and I give myself alone time to calm down. We all need space, but don’t feel guilty if you need more because of what is going on in your mind.
2) Exercise. This is advice I rarely dish out because I am no athlete or exercise regular but having 30 minutes to sweat it out or stretch is out really does help. I almost didn’t include this because I used to HATE people telling me to exercise (such a catch 22 with chronic pain) but it does usually help- not always but 90% of the time it does. I take a walk around the woods with my grandma’s dog and just in those 20-30 minutes, my mind is quiet and I do not have to navigate family discussions about so and so. Even a 10-minute yoga/stretch in your room can help calm your breathing and help you feel less overwhelmed.
3) Have a time out. No not the kind you put your children in but a little mini time out from a situation that is bringing on anxiety helps to calm your racing mind. Sometimes it’s an uncomfortable dinner conversation or an argument has broke out and you just feel like running away- I’ve been there, SO many times. I excuse myself or say I’m going to the toilet and I go sit in another room and listen to one song. One song is a good amount of time to refocus my mind and reassure myself that whatever is making me anxious will be okay. I usually always listen to the same song when I’m in an anxious situation but pick something that calms you and just sit there taking some deep breaths. Take as many time outs as you need and know that it’ll be okay.
4) Talk to someone if you’re really struggling. It doesn’t have to be any of the family you’re spending time with, if you’re feeling that huge overwhelming feeling that it’s going to hit or that familiar emptiness creeps over you- reach out to someone!! It could be anyone who you trust, or even a chat line that supports those with mental illness. A five-minute conversation can make you see things differently, calm your fears and lift off some of the weight on your shoulders or simply a hug can make you feel comfort. It’s hard talking to someone any time of year but I always struggle around Christmas because I don’t want to bother any of my friends or upset anyone with my gloominess but 10/10 times, they have welcomed me with open arms and just listened. Cry, vent, shout, scream, whatever you need to do to release the built up emotions.
5) Use any learnt coping mechanisms. When I had CBT, I learnt a lot of useful techniques to manage my anxiety in stressful situations. Now they were mainly centered around travelling and going out in busy places but they can apply just as well to sitting around the dinner table with 30 family members (stressful for anyone;). I learnt helpful breathing techniques that would help the madness in my head. Focusing on breathing in and out on a specific number of counts takes your mind off what is worrying you. Another useful one was thinking of the worst thing that could happen, the best outcome (sometimes this one isn’t needed) and what was most likely to happen. In the early days of using this technique, I had a worksheet that I would always carry with me but now I can do it all in my head without having to see it written (seeing it written use to be the only way I would manage to believe the worst outcome was highly unlikely of happening). For example, I used to be anxious about going on the train so using that technique, the worst that could happen was the train crashing or a bomb going off (sounds extreme but it was a VERY intense worry I would have), what was most likely going to happen, I take the train and safely get to my destination. It sounds ridiculously simple but it helps to rationalise the fear in your mind.
6) Don’t feel guilty over what you can’t do. Guilt has consumed me for many years over things I’ve had no control over but even more so during the holiday season. I feel like I’m instantly letting friends or family down if I don’t go shopping or ice-skating, or sit down with the family every lunch and dinnertime. Guilt is not an emotion that is easily fought off but know that sleeping all day or not going to dinner is nothing to feel guilty about. Sometimes people make you feel the guilt and other times, it’s all because of your mind convincing you of something. Remind yourself you are doing the best YOU can, not the best anyone else can do but the best that you, in your currant state, can do. And that is simply enough. Don’t beat yourself up over things you didn’t do, there is always more time to do the things you want to accomplish. Simply by fighting you are giving yourself infinite chances.
If all the above fails, grab some chocolate and go watch your favourite film because sometimes all you need is a little extra comfort and relaxation. Mental illness is hard and often times an uphill battle but don’t let the false idea that you have to have it all together this time of year keep you from enjoying yourself when you can. Take it day by day, I know December can feel like the longest month with all the festivities but it will pass by quickly and the fight might feel a little lighter come January.
Hey there, I'm Jasmine, your average 23 year old working in childcare and living in England. Maybe Tomorrow follows my journey living with mental health issues and multiple chronic health conditions, all whilst trying to have some fun along the way.
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