The Greatest Holiday Gift of All – Taking Care of Your Mental Health

HomeBipolarThe Greatest Holiday Gift of All – Taking Care of Your Mental Health
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(Names have been changed to respect privacy)

The holiday season is seen as light, fun-filled and festive. For some, it’s Christmas morning gifts with family, seasonal songs, or holiday parties with friends and co-workers. For others, this season can be filled with a mix of highs and lows. 

Whether dealing with loss, mental illness or caring for a loved one, there are healthy habits and helpful perspectives anyone can adopt to manage and enjoy the holidays.

What should be a happy holiday season can feel isolating and lonely.  This can be especially true and very painful for those with emotional struggles and those dealing with the loss of a family member or a loved one with mental illness. The happy highs of the holidays can be contrasted with feelings of isolation, loneliness, and grief.

Below are stories of individuals who have learned lessons from their toughest times; a teen who lost his sister but did not lose hope, a caregiver who embraces her well-being and a man who uses gratitude to thrive during the season.

The Hard Side of the Season – A Need For Hope During the Holidays

Caleb, a 17 year old high school senior from Long Island, experienced the loss of his sister who died by suicide  4 years ago.  Caleb says he remembers a time when his favorite part of the holidays was waking up Christmas morning to  be with his family sitting around the tree, “my sister and I would always be the first ones up.” Now, that his sister was no longer with them, “the elephant in the room was that we were missing one family member. There is one stocking we didn’t fill…”

“the elephant in the room was that we were missing one family member. There is one stocking we didn’t fill…”  ~Caleb, 17

Tyler, a 33 year old animal therapist from Georgia, says, “ the contrast between tv ads featuring family gatherings and my feelings of disconnectedness are what actually makes me feel alone.”  For him, the holidays depend on, “where I am with sickness and recovery.  The holidays can either be a joy to see family and friends or super stressful when I deal with depression.” In fact the holidays can be a trigger for him.  The abundance of alcohol, late night parties and intimate settings with family members, can bring up anxiety which could  bring him to, “ the verge of tears.”

Barbara, a 65 year old mother from Brooklyn, NY, generally sees the holidays as a quiet time and appreciates the rest. Yet, when her loved one first began to experience depression, the holidays were “a pretty grim and dismal time.”  She felt like there was nothing she could do to make the situation better.  Her loved one struggled with bipolar depression, and “it was like  walking on eggshells being around him.” This time of the year really impacted him, the shorter days, colder weather, and staying inside more often were debilitating. Although she and her loved one did not have distinct holiday traditions, the quiet of the season was disturbed.

Create the Holiday Memories You Want to Remember

Barbara says she deals with the holidays by acknowledging what she needs for her wellness. “For the holidays, go out when people invite you, force yourself to socialize.” She encourages us to “not feel guilty for taking time for yourself.” She realized that “as a caregiver, you have to be well…you cannot function without being well.”

“As a caregiver, you have to be well…you cannot function without being well.” ~Barbara, 65

Tyler, says he now feels gratitude during the holidays.  His sense of gratitude comes from knowing his boundaries and what works for him, “ I feel grateful for how far I’ve come, I know how partying affects me, and I know the importance of self-care.” Since setting these boundaries, Tyler is now able to enjoy family and friends in a positive and healthy way.

Psychiatrist, Dr. Tolu Olupona, says that people who are dealing with loss, struggling with mental illness or caring for a loved one with mental illness have to be, “particularly vigilant around the holidays” as the activities of the holidays can be triggers.  She also points out, however, that the biggest part of this season is being mindful, but not dwelling on the negative.  Dr. Olupona acknowledges that if we are intentional and are aware of what we need, we can “navigate the ups and downs of the season and enjoy the festivities.”

Caleb says he and his family began to tackle the feelings of loss by lighting a candle for his sister during the first night of Hanukkah.  He says, “we did not quite know what to say, we were all quiet and it was hard to talk” however, they were still proactive. Caleb’s mom says they knew they were going to celebrate those first holidays because they had no other choice than to move forward and not to dwell on what happened.

Dr. Olupona states that it is important to acknowledge your feelings – guilt, sadness, bitterness- and not  be in denial.  “Sharing feelings openly,” she says, “along with letting family members know that it’s okay to say nothing, is also very therapeutic.”  And like Caleb and his family did, acknowledging your loved one by creating traditions is very powerful as well.

“Sharing feelings openly along with letting family members know that it’s okay to say nothing, is also very therapeutic.” ~Psychiatrist, Dr. Olupona

Strategies and Tips for Holiday Healing

Whether dealing with loss, mental illness or caring for a loved one, there are healthy habits and helpful perspectives anyone can adopt to manage and enjoy the holidays:

Losing a loved one is painful, but there is space for acceptance.  Here are some ways to start healing around the holidays:

  • Acknowledge loss and know it’s okay to feel a mix of emotions
  • Affirm feelings and let loved ones know it is okay to feel sad
  • Create spaces to openly share feelings
  • Create new traditions to remember your loved one

As a family member of a loved one with mental illness, it is important to never forget that you are important too! During the holiday season:

  • Take time specifically for your well-being – sleep, exercise, etc.
  • Know it is okay to celebrate with friends and family, if you are invited out, yes, you can go!
  • Continue traditions that are important to you on a scale you can manage – instead of “The Super Tree” get a smaller Christmas tree

Whatever stage you are at in your journey with mental illness, you can:

  • Be mindful of your triggers and be proactive in looking out for them
  • Remember to practice self-care
  • Be consistent with your treatment, medication, therapy
  • Be open to gratitude

It is possible to find ways to make the holidays a time to enjoy. Remember, where we are is not always where we will be.  We can learn and proactively put healthy strategies in place. Through setting intentions and being mindful, we can create the kind of holiday memories we want to have. Happy Healthy Holidays!

#iamacceptance #letscontinuetheconversation #happyhealthyholidays

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