It starts as early as September that my clients begin to express reservations about the upcoming holidays. They begin wondering and questioning how they can make this year better in a way that doesn’t include feelings of tension, fear, and dread.
Concerns about the holidays vary, and can be complex for some, or more straightforward for others. Common themes and experiences include:
- Difficulties with relatives that may be more manageable throughout the rest of the year, but become much more intense at the holidays.
- Expectations and pressure from family and friends to celebrate in ways that are no longer interesting and have become outdated.
- Either too much forced closeness with family or too much distance, the latter of which could be from being too far away from one another in location or from lack of emotional connection.
- Extra stress from trying to fit many activities into a short period of time such as decorating, buying and wrapping presents, sending holiday cards, planning meals, entertaining guests, and visiting others, all while continuing with job duties and other daily tasks.
- High standards for trying to make the holidays “the best time of the year”, and feeling diminished if things do not seem magical and perfect.
- Getting out of a healthy self-care routine such as with sleep, nutrition, exercise, and relaxation, and being tempted by excessive self-indulgence, particularly regarding food and drink.
- Overspending and facing financial stress.
- Fears of being swallowed up by a time of year that overshadows regular life, and seems to try to define how everyone should be feeling and celebrating.
- Sadness from feeling left out, sometimes from wanting to decline invitations because of worries of becoming overextended, and sometimes from not being included enough and feeling alone.
- After holiday “blahs” that can occur when everything winds down in January.
- Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that can hamper energy and increase depression.
- Ramping up of enthusiasm that can exacerbate mania.
- For parents of minors, navigating the highs and lows of their children’s excitement.
- Wanting to hold on to favorite rituals that may no longer bring as much joy as in the past, and possibly exploring new options, which may or may not feel satisfying.
- Life transitions, losses, and grief that occur at this time of year such as a layoff, divorce, or death of a loved one can seem much worse at the holiday season.
- Questioning of religious and spiritual values, and the meaning and purpose of life may arise, and at a time when people are being encouraged to celebrate in a light-hearted way, and to not have deeper or more serious needs and concerns.
- Memories of disappointments past, not only during the holidays, but perhaps also about another year that has passed, and tendency to regret what may have happened or what may not have happened that was hoped for.
From this list (and there can be many other variations on the above themes), it can be seen that the holiday season can become quite complicated. It is probably very “normal” to anticipate that the holiday season can carry with it reasons to view its approach with some trepidation and dismay.
It’s been found, though, that awareness and good preparation and planning can help people make the best of their circumstances. If any of the items mentioned about the potential effect of the holidays are areas you can relate to, taking steps to ensure you’ll fare well, and even thrive, during the holidays can serve you well.
Here are seven solid and surefire ways you can become aware of and plan to practice during the holiday season to keep your mood in a good place, and to keep you grounded and centered even when a flurry of activities and potentially stressful situations are occurring for you.
- Keep as much of your regular routine in place as possible. Consider your basic lifestyle as a base that you can vary a bit, but not abandon. Think of the things you do daily and/or weekly that are most vital to your good health and wellbeing and hold steady with them. You can add on other fun and joys, but don’t let go of what’s stable, and what keeps you grounded and centered. These hallmarks of good living could include your morning routine for getting started each day, your day-to-day flow of activities, special interests you embrace that give each day a boost, and evening rituals such as dinner with family and preparing for restful sleep.
- Determine what you will absolutely not give up in your self-care and stick to it. The holidays bring numerous temptations for going off course and overindulging. It can seem innocent at the time to think that some late nights out, drinking at a party, and eating too much and too many decadent foods won’t be harmful. The problem is that the holiday celebration season is so long that healthy habits can be lost within a few weeks, and poor habits developed, making recovery from getting off track difficult. An accumulation of too many missteps for too long can alter mood. Identify and make a pledge to stay within a predetermined framework of behaviors, which could include not ever staying out past a certain time, avoiding drinking, or selecting nutritious foods over unhealthy ones.
- Protect your sleep. Sleep is one of the top factors for managing mood with bipolar. As much as possible, allow for sufficient time to relax before bedtime, and sleep as closely as possible to your regular sleep hours. Try to select activities for socializing and celebrating that fall outside your sleep schedule such as going to a New Year’s Day brunch or lunch rather than a New Year’s Eve late-night party. If you do feel a special activity that might alter your sleep schedule would be worth it, plan for recovery. For example, if staying up to ring in the new year could be a worthwhile occasion for you, make plans to ensure you’ll return to your normal sleep patterns as quickly as possible by having the next few days and nights focus on a return to relaxation and restfulness.
- Limit as much other stress as possible. Along with sleep disturbances, an overload of stress can wreak havoc with bipolar. Stress inventories generally list the holidays as a source of stress. Anything that promotes change, whether it’s perceived as negative or positive, can aggravate stress responses. As it’s difficult to avoid some stress over the holidays, it is helpful to counterbalance the added stress with avoiding taking on other stressors during this time of year. Whatever you can control that would likely best be dealt with at another time of the year is advisable. For instance, this may not be the time to make a significant lifestyle change, go into debt for a major purchase, or take on a new challenge that requires much energy and focus.
- Examine what you would like from the holidays. So much of the time we aim to please and try to slot ourselves into others’ expectations for ways of celebrating. We forget that we can craft the holidays into something we can look forward to and that can meet our current needs in the moment. Ask yourself what you would like to do, what would make the holidays more joyful for you, and what would make it most meaningful for you. Sometimes we hold on to past ways of living that now seem lackluster, creating a sense of boredom or even depression that might prod us to make a radical change to promote excitement. Neither switching things up intensely nor living with dullness is necessary. Rather think of some healthy, doable things that could provide optimism and zest that you’d like to do for yourself this season. It might be as simple as going out for dinner and a movie on your holiday day rather than cooking all that day this year, or lighting candles and cultivating what you’re grateful for at this time. Promote your own rituals, and invite others to share in yours. Perhaps you can select how you might want to participate in others’ ideas, as well, that could benefit you. Either way, own the season for yourself, being flexible where you can, but making sure you don’t let go of what interests you for the sake of going along with doing things that don’t matter to you and are not valuable.
- Make good boundaries both for how much you want to take on this year, and for making plans with others. Remember to have limits. Know what is important and pursue those things, and let go of what doesn’t matter. So very often the phrase “less is more” can be beneficial. For example, it may not seem worthwhile to create a traditional feast this year. Maybe there are a few menu items you’d like to make, but you might prefer to order some things this year to try something different and to preserve your energy. Maybe fewer decorations or buying fewer presents could actually be enhancing rather than “not enough”. Adjust your priorities. Stay open-minded to new possibilities that can help keep you healthy while also allowing you to participate in special festivities that matter to you.
- Balance your relationships. Think about difficult social mixes that could occur, and plan accordingly. Maybe you’d prefer to skip the big, loud parties, and entertain with smaller, quieter, more intimate gatherings. Or just attend one big party, and focus on other types of get-togethers for balance. Be selective about what will most work for you. Put your health first. If you have difficult people in your life, limit your time with them. Keep those interactions as simple and light-hearted as possible, and focus on being with people who can be healing and rejuvenating. Make sure not to isolate, which is the worst thing for depression. You may not feel like being jovial at all, and may find it hard to force a smile and create enthusiastic words; however, being too alone is a recipe for worsening of mood. If generalized holiday socializing seems trivial for you, there might be more meaningful activities you can participate in that meet your needs such as volunteer work and church functions. Gravitate towards what can brighten your soul, help you maintain a positive mood, and contribute towards your having a rewarding holiday season.
© by Annette Houghtling, MA, LPC, NCC, Psychotherapist and Counselor Specialist for Bipolar and Depression Help for Individuals, Couples, and Families