When You Add Mental Illness Into the Holiday Mix

By Maree Dee

The holidays are here! For some, this brings feelings of excitement and anticipation of wonderful gatherings full of joy, family, friendship and love. I say if that is you, then embrace it and enjoy every second of it!

This season may be taxing for everyone to some degree. However, when you add mental health challenges into the holiday mix, things can become exhausting, discouraging and sad for all. It is not uncommon during the holidays to see our loved ones become extremely symptomatic, in the hospital, overwhelmed, isolated or just barely getting by.

However, what if each of us could be a catalyst for making the holidays a little less stressful for someone with a mental illness? Would you be willing to try? I know we all hate seeing our loved ones with extra struggles of any kind. So are you willing to give your best effort?

The first place to start would be gaining a little insight into what the holidays may be like for a person who struggles with mental illness. Granted, I am not an expert on what someone with a mental illness might be feeling, but over the years, I have learned a few things from my experiences and from those willing to share with me. Of course, each person is different, but this may help.

Why don’t we start with some of the familiar phrases that might come up when the pressure of the holidays starts to mount on our loved ones.

“I hate the holidays, everything about them.”

“I have to look right, talk right, be right, and it is just impossible.”

“Nobody likes me.”

“Everybody judges me.”

“Doesn’t anybody realize how hard this is for me?”

“Doesn’t anybody care about me?”

“The people I depend on to take care of me become so consumed, stressed and busy that they do not even notice I am struggling.”

“I just don’t belong.”

”All I want is ‘my normal’ back.”

What if this time we do not have answers or solutions to everything said? Instead, what if we attempted to climb into their shoes and see what it is like to live with mental health challenges during the holidays.

What might someone with a mental illness want you to understand?

  • Holidays feel like milepost markers: As we gather with friends and family, it is a reminder of the milepost markers not yet hit.
  • Social interactions are draining: Now we are out and about with people we do not interact with on a regular basis. All this extra socializing leaves me spent.
  • Change in routine: Change is difficult at any time. During the holidays, schedules are fuller, food is different and life is not quite the same.
  • Increased stress is in the air: Stress is like a magnet. Not only does a person have to manage their additional stress, but now they feel your stress and the added obligations you have made.
  • Holidays are noisy: Extra noise is everywhere they go, including inside their head.
  • Emotions might be amplified: When emotions are amplified, mental processing becomes more difficult.
  • Judgments: Not only do they feel the piercing eyes of others hurling judgments, they too are judging themselves harsher than anyone else could ever do.

How can we help our loved ones navigate the holidays?

  • Predictability: Let them know the plans ahead of time.
  • Helping: Ask your loved one what you can do to help to make it less stressful. It might be as simple as dressing down or wearing slippers. I served one year with slippers on, and it was fantastic.
  • Be consistent.
  • Be in the moment: Live in the present moment. Turn your chair, make eye contact and listen.
  • Be effective, not right: Think about what you want, to be right or to have a peaceful home.
  • Safety: Create a safe place in your home. Provide a safe way out at events.
  • Let it be their choice: Be willing to negotiate on plans and expectations. Do they even want to attend or participate? Ask. Communicate your understanding if they choose not to participate. Let them know you don’t want them to feel left out, and you will miss them. Say it is your choice over and over again. It makes it easier for a person to take control of their behavior if it is their choosing.
  • Preparations: Don’t force others to be active. Ask if they want to help or be included. Let them step away if they are getting too stressed.
  • Validate, validate, validate: We all like to be heard and acknowledged.
  • Practice conversations: Practice the anticipated conversations that will come up at the gatherings.
  • Lower your expectations: Let landing the plane be enough. Showing up for five minutes is better than none.
  • Alcohol: Rethink what you are serving. Alcohol can have a significant impact on mood.

I believe we can make the holidays just a tad bit better for those we love with a little bit of understanding and a few skills. After all, if our loved ones are a bit better, we will be too. Granted we most likely won’t be able to pull off a “Norman Rockwell Christmas;” however, a bit better goes a long way. Please, share what tips have worked for helping your family navigate the holidays below.

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