Christmas is a wonderful time for many people. We reconnect with loved ones, share stories and make the most of the time we have together, strengthening relationships and building hope for a better year to come.
But it’s not like this for everyone. Some people struggle with holiday seasons like Christmas for a variety of reasons and the focus for this post is about those of us who have mental illness and are struggling to regulate their emotions during the holidays.
I say ‘us’ because I have had Bipolar 2 disorder for over 15 years and have also struggled with generalised anxiety and panic disorders. A Molotov cocktail of diagnoses that can become very explosive and unpredictable when placed under the pressure of being around family in the Petri dish of Christmas.
Let me say off the bat that I have a great family. My extended family are also awesome and I have a lot of personal support and encouragement. You could say we are a pretty typical family. But sometimes despite my best attempts I still find myself settling back into negative patterns: sibling battles, eye-rolling moments during disagreements, as if I am still 16 and deep sighs of resignation when I realise I’m not 16 anymore and I’ve eaten too much, spent too much and said too much.
Sometimes I leave the family gathering in a very mixed state, my emotions running high and my energy running dangerously low. Being around a bunch of people, whether they are folks I love or not, can be psychologically fatiguing, even if I have had a great time, so I have to watch how I regulate my emotions during this time.
I am not even close to seeing this technique in full flight yet, but I continue to work on it each time we get together and somehow I feel like I am making progress.
1. A few days or a week before the gathering, I journal some thoughts.
I write a bit of a reflection of what I am feeling, how I feel about the up and coming family events and any concerns I have about how I might manage unpredictable behaviour, alcohol infused conversations (we are a pretty tame bunch, but still…) and the general banter that comes along with throwing the family together again after long periods of absence.
2. I remind myself that I am not going to be the only person there feeling anxious
Even the most placid members of my family attest to feeling more anxious when we all get together so reminding myself that I am not alone and that I have other people to look out for, helps ground me. It gives me perspective and a little dollop of humility on the side.
3. I remind myself that at any time I can walk away from a conversation
I can walk out of a room. In fact, I can get in the car and drive away. I am unlikely to need to do these things, but I remind myself that I have the choice and I do not have to explain my actions unless I want to.
Like I said, I am still working on these guidelines and with Christmas not far away, I plan to try and put all three in action this year. The most important thing for me (and you too) to remember is that the parameters you set for your mental wellness are yours. People can provide their advice or opinion, but the bottom line is that these parameters, or non-negotiables – are for you to set. They are for you to feel safe within. They are your boundaries.
So even though it might be Christmas and expectations are high, you choose how much time you spend with Aunt Myrtle and Uncle Theodore. You choose whether or not you want to hold your cousin’s screaming newborn. You choose how much of the food slopped onto your plate you want to eat. You choose. It’s that simple.
I hope that as we draw closer to Christmas you are able to find time to spend with God working through the issues you may have experienced at this time in the past. Sorting out how you feel about those experiences will help you move toward this one with a more positive and hopeful mindset and it can make all the difference.
Be well, choose wisely and remember, just because you have a mental illness, it doesn’t mean you are not in control of how you respond to difficult situations.
Be blessed today and always,