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Managing holiday stress

Ho, ho, ho! Happy Hanukkah! Et cetera, et cetera.

The holidays are here again!

But you obviously didn’t need me to tell you that, did you!

What will you be doing this season to have fun, but also to take care of yourself and your mental health?

Why is the holiday season so stressful?

Many of us who live with a severe mental illness like bipolar find we do best with stable routines and healthy habits, predictable patterns of daily life, and ordinary, manageable day-to-day activities. Surprises and unforeseen events—even “pleasant” ones—almost inevitably cause stress. And stress of any kind puts us at risk for relapse.

List some of the major sources of holiday stress. And ask: how can you rein in the stress?

Each person’s answer will be a bit different, but consider the numbered list below.

My favourite holiday self-care strategies

It took me several years after I was first diagnosed to recognize just how high-risk the holiday season is for me personally. We grow up looking forward to all the parties, gift shopping, house guests and/or visits to relatives, delicious meals, and the dramatic change in routine…

Did I omit anything that you particularly look forward to and enjoy?

But let’s just look back at that list for a moment, shall we?

  1. Parties. These often involve generous servings of alcohol (verboten for people with hyper-sensitive and/or medicated bipolar brains), late nights (a major risk factor for bipolar relapse), over-stimulation with loud music, large crowds, and the need to socialize with a lot of people. Exhausting! If I do go to an event, I warn the host that I won’t be able to stay long, and feel comfortable leaving the moment I start to feel overwhelmed. (It’s hard to describe the “racy” feeling I get when my brain starts to tell me that enough is enough. But I know it, and I now respect it enough to heed it!) I also take a prescribed sleeping pill to make sure I can sleep through the night after all the excitement.

  2. Gift shopping. It’s hard to believe that I ever enjoyed fighting my way through traffic, desperately searching for a parking spot, and then jostling my way from one end of the mall to the other, like some archaeologist searching for ancient buried treasures. The stress! The noise! The sheer volume of human flesh at every turn! Thank goodness for online shopping now. And thank goodness one of our adult children has taken over the role of “gift-finding elf” for us. All I have to do is reimburse her for the gifts. (If she ever wants to stop playing this role, I will tell everyone that I’m only giving cash.)

  3. Houseguests. I used to make a huge fuss about houseguests. Buying new linens for the guest bedroom and new towels and bathmats for the guest bathroom. The deepest of deep cleanings in their room. Fresh flowers on the bedside table. Their favourite chocolates on the pillow. All their favourite fruits and veggies in stock. The whole nine yards. Now, I still make an effort, but within reason. No guest is worth risking my mental health over. Also, when I feel over-stimulated or stressed or “invaded” in any way, I either take a brisk walk, or go upstairs with my book or iPad for a break. No one takes these absences personally: they all know I’m actively protecting my mental health every single day.

  4. Delicious meals. Before bipolar, I could happily plan meals of feast-like proportions, check recipes, do the grocery shopping, and then cook and bake and decorate with the best of them. Lucky for me, when I was diagnosed (with rapid-cycling bipolar I) in 2008, our kids were all teenagers and young adults, so there were plenty of hands to help my husband Rob in the kitchen. I take a backseat, now. And anyway, who says we have to cook lavish meals? A frozen pizza suits me just fine these days! Or a grilled cheese sandwich …

  5. Dramatic change in routine. In a previous post (How to implement a routine for stability, Dec 12, 2019) I discussed the importance of a predictable daily routine. In my memoir, Mad Like Me: Travels in Bipolar Country, I tell the story of how my psychiatrist at the time warned:

“Now, with bipolar, you will have to tone it down and live a more normal life—a ‘boring’ life, even. Otherwise you will keep having major bipolar episodes of depression and mania. Now, it has to be early to bed, no all-nighters to finish big projects, and so on. Pull back from work and social commitments so you can rest and relax; do regular meditation and exercise; eat balanced meals. You also seem to get emotionally over-involved in issues, and that’s dangerous for you.” (2018:125)

I have taken her advice very much to heart, and am delighted to report that I have now gone six years (faithfully taking my meds) with no relapse at all.

What are your most effective self-care strategies?

Happy Hanukkah, merry Christmas, blessed Kwanzaa, happy winter solstice…

As always, please use the Contact Form to reach me.


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