10 Things to NEVER Say to Someone with Mental Health Problems

People find talking about mental health difficult. It is one of the reasons why the stigma surrounding mental illness is so powerful and pervasive. Unfortunately, when some people break the silence, they do more harm than good.

Purple scream

All of these examples have been said to me at some point, many of them by a single family member (whom I no longer have contact with, for obvious reasons). It is time we moved past these products of assumptions and misinformation. So if you ever find yourself about to say one of the following phrases, please STOP and educate yourself before inflicting more pain on someone who is already suffering.

1. Snap out of it

If only it were that easy! Seriously, if you have ever said this, what the fuck were you thinking? Nobody chooses to be mentally ill. Nobody chooses to be miserable, to endure debilitating symptoms and to limit their quality of life.

Mental illness is not a choice. People with mental health problems cannot choose to recover and then magically get better. Mental health is far more complex than that, for a start. Many people with mental illnesses also struggle to access help, for a variety of reasons, and being able to access treatment doesn’t guarantee recovery.

Telling people to “snap out of it” also places the blame on people with mental health problems, as if it’s their fault they have a mental illness. Again, it’s not a choice. You have a choice though: you can choose not to use this insulting, damaging and all-too-common phrase.

 

2. There’s nothing wrong with you

First of all, how would you know whether someone has a mental illness? You don’t know what is going on in their head, even if you spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with them (which is unlikely, especially when you will be asleep for a significant portion of time). Plus, chances are you’re not a mental health professional if you take this attitude towards someone. At least, I hope you aren’t a mental health professional.

Secondly, attempting to negate someone’s experience of mental illness can be incredibly harmful. What right do you have to dismiss their diagnosis? How would you feel if you had been diagnosed with a physical condition, diabetes for example, only to be told by some ignorant bastard that there is nothing wrong with you? To be told that your symptoms somehow don’t count as being a genuine illness?

This situation is frustrating enough when you haven’t yet been diagnosed but know something is wrong. When you have endured years of distress before being diagnosed with mental health problems and still struggle to access help and support, facing people with this attitude is frustrating, exhausting and detrimental to your health. It’s awful being told there is nothing wrong with you by someone who hasn’t a clue, especially after your diagnosis has been confirmed by a number of mental health professionals.

Taking this attitude indicates that you think mental health is not as important as physical health. It also implies that you don’t think people with mental health problems are important, because you are refusing to listen to what they are saying.

 

3. Shut up, stop talking about your mental health problems

If someone feels comfortable enough to talk about their mental health either to you or around you, that should be celebrated. If it makes you uncomfortable, tough — experiencing the stigma surrounding mental health is more uncomfortable and you are perpetuating it if you try to silence people with mental health problems. Instead, try listening.

Be part of the effort to break down stigma by bearing witness to what people say about their mental health. Give them a safe space to talk about mental health problems. It is difficult to express how valuable it is to feel listened to when you have a mental illness; to have someone let you talk without judging you. You don’t need to say anything in return (in fact, giving unsolicited advice on mental health can be very unhelpful, especially if you haven’t experienced similar mental health problems): just be there and listen.

 

4. You’re lucky compared to so-and-so

Comparing someone’s situation to another person’s is rarely helpful. When you try to compare someone’s mental illness to another person’s problems, it is particularly injurious and offensive.

You don’t know how much someone is suffering when they have mental health problems. You haven’t experienced what they are going through. You have no right to assume that they are suffering less than another person, whether that person has a physical disability, a terminal illness or lives in abject poverty. Even if you happen to be right and they are suffering less than whoever you are comparing them to, they are still suffering.

 

5. You would feel better if you had a new job/partner/dog/holiday

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate: it can affect anyone, no matter how much they own or how many aspects of their life are desirable. Even if someone with mental health problems is able to gain whatever is suggested (which is difficult, considering how debilitating many symptoms are), it won’t cure their mental illness. At best, they might experience a short term boost in mood.

To check how ridiculous your suggestion is, imagine giving someone the same advice if they had a physical illness or disability. “You have cancer? You would feel better if you went on holiday.” “Your leg needs to be amputated? Get a boyfriend and you’ll feel great!” Mental illness cannot be fixed so easily — otherwise the NHS could save a fortune by giving dogs to people with mental health problems.

 

6. Go to the doctor and get some happy pills, then you will feel fine

The problem with this phrase is that there is a strong element of truth to it: going to your doctor is essential when you have mental health problems, however tempting it is to hope your symptoms will disappear on their own. However, going to your doctor doesn’t guarantee access to effective treatment. It certainly cannot provide a quick fix.

Most antidepressants don’t make people feel “high” — at best, they improve your mood enough for you to function a little more and use other methods to manage your mental health. It can take a lot of experimentation to find a particular type of medication and dosage which works fot you. Antidepressants can also take a while to work, so each variation needs to be tried for at least a few weeks to determine its effectiveness — unless you experience harmful side effects or a worsening of symptoms, in which case you need to go back to your doctor immediately.

Medication is one of the most effective tools used to manage mental health problems, but it is not magic. Most people will not feel “fine” through taking medication alone, without other therapies and techniques. Its efficacy can also vary over time — for example, one antidepressant I used to take stopped working after a few years, so I had to switch to another type.

Consider how someone might feel if they took your advice and then discovered you are wrong, that they don’t feel “fine”. If they are already in a negative mindset, they are liable to blame themselves and/or view the experience as proof that recovery is impossible. Characterising antidepressants as “happy pills” is incorrect and perpetuates a damaging stereotype.

 

7. There is nothing you can do, so just get on with it

People with mental health problems cannot “just get on with it.” They are experiencing debilitating symptoms which prevent them from functioning “normally”. If they try, their symptoms are likely to get worse.

There is also a lot which can be done for mental illnesses — the problem is that many treatments are difficult to access. The NHS can provide medication and talking therapies (although these are usually woefully limited and have long waiting lists). There are also many self-care techniques which can be useful, although factors like lack of motivation and anxiety can prevent many people from implementing them. Other people can also help those with mental health problems in a variety of ways, including simply listening and offering practical support.

The point is that there is hope, even if the person concerned doesn’t believe it, and telling someone that nothing can be done is both untrue and detrimental to their health.

 

8. Go on then, if it’s that bad, kill yourself

Why would anyone say this? Do they think it’s helpful or are they just callous, evil people? In my case, it was yelled by a (now ex-) neighbour when I was having a meltdown and if she had really wanted to help me kill myself, I would have taken her up on the offer at that time. I’m sure my shouting and screaming was annoying, but I was in distress and was suffering much worse than the neighbours.

You may think you are playing devil’s advocate or just letting off steam, but you are making a difficult situation worse if you ever tell someone to kill themselves. You are devaluing their life, providing them with more evidence that they are worthless. It’s cruel and unforgivable.

 

9. All you need is a life plan

Another case of “I wish it were that simple”! There is a grain of truth in this, since setting goals can help improve your mental health, but when someone has mental health problems they might not be able to make plans. When you believe your life is not worth living, making plans is pointless.

Setting goals can also be damaging — if you fail to achieve them, it becomes another stick to beat yourself with. More proof of how awful your life is and the impossibility of ever changing it. If someone is going through a bad episode of mental illness, making long term plans might be best avoided. Assuming they are even capable of making plans in their situation.

Plans and goals may be helpful, but it depends entirely on the person, their situation and the symptoms they are currently experiencing. However, a “life plan” is not a magical spell (notice a pattern yet?) and it will not cure mental illness, even if it helps some people with mental health problems move forward. I have plans and goals at the moment, but it doesn’t stop me from experiencing fluctuations in my symptoms — it’s simply one of many tools I use to help cope with my mental health problems.

 

10. Nothing (especially when they talk about their mental health)

While saying nothing is better than saying any of the above phrases, it makes people feel unheard.  Acknowledging their mental health problems is incredibly helpful and validating — you don’t need to say a lot, just let them know you are listening.

Say “that must be difficult for you” if someone talks about their symptoms, ask how they are doing when you see them, take an interest and ask questions about their mental health. However, be aware that some people might not want to talk about their mental illness and some people might want to talk sometimes, but not others.  Don’t be insulted if someone doesn’t want to talk about their mental health — it’s not personal and mental health can be difficult to talk about, especially when you are experiencing certain symptoms.

Talk about mental health in the same way you would physical health — be empathetic without getting too personal. Don’t ask for all the gory details unless the person concerned offers. Be guided by the person you are talking to; everyone has different levels of openness and only they can determine how much they are comfortable with saying.

The worst kind of situation for someone with mental health problems is when you refer to your mental health and are met with silence, or a hasty change of subject. Mental health is worth talking about and it should be talked about. If you don’t know what to say, say that! Any response which shows you are making an effort to understand and offer kindness will be appreciated.

 

Talking about mental health and mental illness is vital. It’s the key way we will be able to break down stigma. One of my goals in writing this blog is to help society reach a point where mental health is discussed in an open and honest manner, like physical health.

For constructive ways to talk about mental health, please see this post on how to talk about your own mental illness. If you are wondering why I’m so passionate about speaking out, read Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Mental Health.

 

Writing, Validity and Vulnerability

I received my contributor’s copy of the 2017 Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual this week.

Aesthetica 2017 Creative Writing Annual

It’s only the second time I have had a short story published in print, so it’s a great achievement for me at this point in my career. My story, Things I Have Wasted Money On, previously won the Devon Prize in the 2015/16 Exeter Writers Short Story Competition. I enjoyed writing it and liked experimenting with its quirky format, which I hope tells the story and expresses the narrator’s emotions in an interesting way.

I also recently won 3rd place in the Erewash Writers’ Group 2016 Open Short Story Competition, which was judged by Patsy Collins. Again, this is a big deal to me because I haven’t had much success with writing competitions. Partly because I don’t enter as many as I should.

 

Submitting writing means being vulnerable.

When you enter a short story competition or submit work to a writing journal, you are inviting rejection. Most stories will be rejected. Very successful, established writers get rejections, so when your career is embryonic, rejection is not only expected – it is inevitable.

Exposing yourself to rejection is never fun, but it is necessary. The alternative is to write purely for yourself, to lock your stories away in a drawer and never let anyone read them apart from yourself. This isn’t an option for me, because I am passionate about literature and writing. I want people to read my work. I want them to like my stories. I want my fiction to evoke emotion and raise questions for people, to challenge their thoughts and assumptions. I would also like to earn a living from writing. All of this cannot be achieved without allowing myself to be vulnerable.

This is difficult for every writer. Well, maybe a few writers are super-confident and genuinely don’t care if everyone hates their work, but I have never met them. However, it is doubly difficult when you have mental health problems which make you constantly question your ability.

 

Small successes provide validity.

Hence these small successes mean a lot to me. They offer evidence that my work is worth reading, that I’m not wasting my time and energy. They are a small counterargument to that voice in my head which says “you’re kidding yourself, you can’t write” and “don’t bother submitting stories, because you’re wasting everyone’s time.”

It would be nice to not need or want such validity, to have utter confidence in my writing, but that’s not the way it is. External validation holds a lot of value for me.

So as much as I enjoy these small successes in and of themselves, they convince me to keep going. To keep submitting my work in the hope that someone will like it, that someone might believe it has value.

Ultimately, vulnerability and validity are two sides of the same coin. Part of me wishes I didn’t feel so vulnerable and that I weren’t so reliant on external validity, but it shows that I care. Writing is important to me and I want other people to believe my work is worthwhile. If just a few people enjoy my stories, that makes me happy.

 

Sick of Being Ill

Long term mental illness + exposure to cold/flu-type virus = 3 and a half weeks (and counting) of feeling crap

I have a newfound appreciation for how healthy I have been over the past couple of years. I caught the odd virus, but I didn’t have an episode of physical illness lasting longer than a week or two. This has changed.

My current ailment has zapped my energy and given me a very painful chest, which is exacerbated by a cough. For the first couple of weeks, I also had headaches and earache. I also have a sore throat which ranges from a little dry to completely raw.

I do feel somewhat better this week — which means my symptoms are less aggravating than my frustration at not being able to get much done.

As I get more annoyed at my immune system, I get more annoyed at myself. Negative thoughts creep in more often. I blame myself for not having energy, viewing it as a sign of my general ineptitude…

Mental health and physical health affect each other.

Everyone knows and accepts how physical diseases can take their toll on mental health. We all understand why someone with cancer might develop depression. Many people understand how chronic ailments which aren’t life threatening may cause mental health problems. However, few people consider how mental health affects physical health.

Many people don’t realise that mental illness can have a variety of physical symptoms, many of which are debilitating. They don’t know that mental illness affects the immune system, leaving sufferers more susceptible to contagious physical illnesses. Like viruses.

When I was a teenager, I got viruses constantly. Many of them were attributed to “stress” because my mental illnesses weren’t diagnosed until I was 18. I was stressed, for sure, but I also had depression and anxiety. I was rundown and exhausted because I had insomnia from the age of 13/14. No amount of rest gave me energy, because my mind was in a constant state of turmoil. Little wonder that I caught everything going!

Of course, this can create a vicious circle…

Physical illness can make it difficult to take care of your mental health, just as mental illness can make it hard to pay attention to physical health.

Over the last few weeks, I have found it very difficult to practice self-care. I haven’t had the energy to do simple things like switch on my SAD lamp, repeat affirmations and meditate. I certainly haven’t been able to exercise.

This is a strange parallel to the past — when my mental health was at its worst, I struggled to eat healthily, exercise, sleep or do anything else to help my physical health.

I have noticed my mental health getting worse over the course of my illness. It’s not terrible, but it’s worrying.

Illness may be temporary, but its effects on mental health can outlast it.

My biggest worry is that the impact on my mental health will last much longer than the virus itself. I don’t want to slip on a downward spiral triggered by an illness which most people manage to shrug off after a week, with no long term effects. Trouble is, that’s beyond my control.

Maybe I will bounce back from this virus and feel awesome next week. Or maybe I will still be reeling from its effects far into next year.

Illness is a reminder that you are not 100% in control.

Whether illness is mental or physical, it makes you realise that you don’t have complete power over your life. While that may be obvious, it’s easy to get caught up in other stuff and then — surprise! — your plans get interrupted by a bloody virus. Or a resurgence of mental health problems. Or both.

Which is why I am so annoyed. I have a lot to do — I have just started volunteering for a local mental health charity and reprised mt volunteer role with the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival. I’m also doing a photography course and have been unable to do any of the (unassessed) assignments, so will need to get my act together to produce something halfway decent for the final assignment. Not to mention my writing projects and preparing/fundraising for my trek to Machu Picchu

I’m supposed to be doing stuff, taking action, being proactive, workig towards my goals… Only I have next to zero energy. Plus the decline in my mental health is paradoxically robbing me of my motivation and making me anxious about everything I want to do.

It boils down to this: a common winter virus is another thing that is relatively easy for most people to deal with, but threatens to derail those of us with mental health problems. And that sucks.

 

Your Christmas Survival Guide (Part Three)

This is Part Three of Your Christmas Survival Guide. For Part One, click here and for Part Two, click here.

  1. Focus on the good stuff

I love lots of things about Christmas, but it’s easy to lose sight of them when I’m feeling bad. I find it helpful to think about what I can enjoy when my mental health prevents me from doing a lot of the stuff people associate with Christmas, like parties. I love making lists, so it’s my go-to tactic, but I think making a list of Christmas activities I love is very helpful. I like being able to refer to a list when my thoughts are all over the place and I’m liable to forget about the things I can enjoy.

Christmas stocking

It’s easy to think Christmas is all about the big things, but a lot of the things I love are small. Drinking champagne (or prosecco, or cava…), listening to Christmas songs, playing board games, watching my dog open his presents, making gingerbread (and eating it!), watching musicals and Christmas films, putting up the decorations, reading ghost stories, etc. They are also accessible, meaning I can do most of them when my symptoms of mental illness are bad (though not when they are at their worst) and I don’t need lots of money or anything to enjoy them.

When you make your own list of things you love to do during the festive season (which don’t have to be Christmassy, by the way), consider scheduling some of them. Scheduling activities can provide some structure, which you may be lacking since Christmas disrupts your usual routine. It gives you something to look forward to, especially if you space them out before and after Christmas Day itself.

Don’t let other people dictate what you enjoy or how you spend your time. Think about what pleases you – it could be choir concerts, shopping, pantomimes, drinking whisky, making wreaths… Anything which brings out the best of Christmas for you. It’s easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of Christmas when you have mental health problems, but there is also a lot to enjoy.

 

  1. Remember it’s temporary

“This too shall pass” is a powerful phrase and it’s true. Christmas will be over by early January. Even if the hullabaloo starts in November, that’s 2 months: it’s finite. Do what you need to get through it and keep telling yourself it will pass.

Look ahead to the New Year, if you can. What would you like to do? What goals would you like to achieve? I like to make lists (again!). Try focusing on your favourite time of year (I love late spring/early summer) and how you can enjoy it all the more. If you find Christmastime unbearable, use any distraction you can find (assuming it’s not harmful) to get you through.

Also remember that the way you currently feel will pass. It’s hard to believe, but repeating “this too shall pass” can bring great comfort.

 

Wrapped Gift
  1. Experiment

While some or all of these strategies may help, nobody can dictate what works for you and the only way you can find out is by trying different approaches.

Think about what has worked for you in the past, but also keep an open mind. Different things can work at different times, so try things which you have dismissed in the past. For example, exercise is now one of the main ways I manage my mental health, but I used to find it next to impossible to do and didn’t notice any good effects when I forced myself to exercise.

Experimenting can be a great way of coping in itself. It provides some distraction from your thoughts and feelings. You are being proactive and focusing on finding solutions, which cultivates optimism.

Do some research – look online and find out how other people cope with Christmas and/or their mental health problems in general. Read self-help and psychology books. Try to understand the biochemical and cognitive functions behind your symptoms. Challenge yourself to find as many options as you can. Have fun trying the craziest suggestions you can find.

Don’t beat yourself up if you feel unable to do something – or anything. Experimenting is as much about finding out what doesn’t work for you as it is about finding what works.

 

  1. Remind yourself you are not alone

One of the greatest advantages of the internet is that you can connect to other people without having to go outside or actually meet them. Read blogs about people in similar situations to yourself. Participate in mental health forums. Visit websites about mental health. Simply reminding yourself that other people find Christmas difficult can help you feel less isolated and more able to cope.

Talk to friends and family if you can, whether in person or via phone calls, text messages, email, Skype, etc. You don’t have to talk about your mental health, although it can be useful if you can – just chatting about trivial things helps you reconnect. Don’t forget that pets are great company, too. Spending time with animals is beneficial for your mental health and talking to a pet is often better than talking to a friend, since you have no fear of being judged.

Don’t forget that if you need someone to talk to, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 (in the UK) or visit Samaritans.org

 

To read Your Christmas Survival Guide Part One, click here.

To read Your Christmas Survival Guide Part Two, click here.

Your Christmas Survival Guide (Part Two)

This is the second instalment of Your Christmas Survival Guide. Find Part One here and Part Three here.

  1. Maintain self-care

Your routine may be disrupted, but you can still make time to do the things which help you to feel as well as possible. Prioritise anything which makes a huge difference, such as exercise or meditation. Look for ways to practice self-care amongst all of the other stuff that’s going on. It could mean making an effort to eat healthy food alongside the less healthy Christmas fare, writing a gratitude list before you go to bed, ensuring your alcohol intake isn’t too high, etc.

Self-care can also mean removing yourself from stressful situations. Remember you have choices (see part one of this survival guide) and just because it’s Christmas, doesn’t mean you have to do things with which you are uncomfortable. If any traditions or activities cause you distress, opt out. I know it’s easier said than done, but you need to take care of your mental health first and foremost.

A simple (and revealing) question to ask is: would this be acceptable if it wasn’t Christmastime?

If the answer is no, don’t pressure yourself to do something. It isn’t acceptable to expect you to sacrifice your mental health for the sake of tradition or keeping the status quo.

Do everything and anything you need to keep as well as you can. For some people, that’s a few key activities. For others, it means keeping as much of your usual routine in place as possible. It can also vary from day to day – perhaps you can get through Christmas Eve and Day without actively practicing self-care, but you might need to put a lot more effort into self-care during the week between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Do what you need to do.

 

  1. Make contingency plans

What can you do if everything goes wrong? If your mental health problems get worse? How will you cope?

These are difficult questions and it’s impossible to answer them completely, but try to come up with some options. Make a list of helplines you could call, such as the Samaritans (116 123 in the UK, by the way, or visit Samaritans.org). Tell your partner/roommates/parents what they can do if you are in distress. Write down everything which might help and make copies – keep a version in your phone, too.

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Think about what has helped you in the past. Something as simple as listening to a certain playlist (I have a playlist of “happy music” which boosts my mood) or spending time with a pet can be very helpful. Even if you think something is obvious, like chatting to a friend, write it down – you might not consider it when your thoughts are consumed by stress and anxiety. Having a physical list also reminds you that you have options, which you can lose sight of when your mental illness takes a nosedive.

It could be helpful to make lists for different situations. For instance, different things help me when I feel anxious or depressed (though there can be an overlap), so it is useful to have separate lists. The lists could be for different situations, such as what can help when you feel like your family aren’t making an effort to understand how you feel or when you feel overwhelmed by everything. The act of thinking things through can help stave off the problems you anticipate, since you will feel more able to cope.

Depending on your relationships, it can be helpful to share your lists with family and friends. It enables them to give you extra support and helps them understand your mental health. Having other people know about the lists can also make them more accessible, which makes it easier to implement your contingency plans.

Having plans in place for when things go wrong may seem pessimistic, but it is actually reassuring. It provides a safety net.

 

  1. Get some space

If you feel suffocated by the Christmas spirit, get away from it! It can be as simple as putting on headphones to listen to (non-Christmas) music and shutting yourself in your bedroom. Or go for a walk in the countryside, miles from any lights and crowds. Or take a complete break and go on holiday over the festive season.

No matter what your situation, you have some options available. If you will be surrounded by family at Christmas, earmark a room to which you can escape if it all gets too much. Tell people you need space when you use that room and hopefully they will respect that, especially if you explain how it helps your mental health. Fill the room with items which will help you escape for a while – books, scented candles, puzzles, DVDs, knitting, computer games, pen and paper… Anything which can provide a distraction.

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You may find you need less space than you anticipated. Knowing you have the strategy in place might be all you need or a 15-30 minute break could be optimal. On the other hand, if you do need to get away for hours at a time, it’s possible.

Giving yourself space is about prioritising your mental health, so explain why it’s important to you if anyone objects. Forcing yourself to participate in activities when you need space will only make your symptoms worse. By getting some space, you are taking care of both yourself and your loved ones.

 

To read Part One of Your Christmas Survival Guide, click here.

For Part Three of Your Christmas Survival Guide, click here.

Your Christmas Survival Guide (Part One)

Christmas can be a difficult time for people with mental health problems. Everyone seems to be happy and excited. Your routine is disrupted. You feel forced to participate in certain activities. It’s the perfect recipe for a turbulent time – even without the added complication of mental illness.

However, there are some strategies you can use to make the festive season run as smoothly as you can:

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  1. Remember you have choices

People tend to use the phrases “it’s a tradition” or “it’s Christmas” to force others into doing things they don’t want to do, but you don’t have to agree. It can be hard to take a stand, for sure, but you need to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of all your options. If doing something will cause you more distress than standing your ground, don’t let yourself be swayed.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t be tactful or make compromises.

Look for ways to make things easier for you and anyone who might be hurt by your decision. For example, if you don’t feel able to spend all of Christmas Day with your family, explain that it will be stressful for both you and your family if you forced yourself to participate. Remind them that the options you face when you are mentally ill are not between having a great time with your family or a miserable time alone; it’s more likely to be between a distressing time with family or a subdued but bearable time alone.

Point out that you are not rejecting anyone personally. You would love to spend a day of joy with your loved ones, but if poor mental health prevents this, it’s not your fault – or theirs. Tell them how they can support you and your decision.

Perhaps you can prioritise certain aspects of Christmas and celebrate them with your family while opting out of doing everything. For example, join your family for lunch and opening presents, but spend time alone in your room or go for a walk when everyone else is playing board games or watching Christmas films. Again, explain that you believe this course of action will make things easier for everyone.

You are not being selfish by prioritising your mental health.

In fact, safeguarding your mental health shows love and respect for your family and friends, as well as yourself. Some people might not understand, but you need to put yourself first so that you can be a better partner/parent/child/sibling/friend. You are allowed to make your own decisions.

If people are upset by the choices you make, it’s not your responsibility (provided you are not wilfully hurting anyone, of course) and they have to deal with their own disappointment or anger. Maybe some people will blame you for their reactions, but you need to recognise that it’s not your fault they feel this way. Remember that even if a person has never been diagnosed with a mental illness, it doesn’t mean they handle their emotions in the best way – and certainly not 100% of the time.

 

  1. Curb unrealistic expectations

The last thing you need is to put more pressure on yourself, yet many of us fall into the trap of believing that Christmas can be perfect. You can’t expect your mental health problems to magically disappear just because it’s Christmas. Mental illness doesn’t care what time of year it is – and symptoms can be exacerbated by the activities and attitudes associated with Christmas.

A lot of the pressure we place on ourselves is unnecessary because we prioritise things which simply don’t matter. Finding the perfect present doesn’t matter – it’s the act of giving which shows you love the recipient. Cooking or buying a magnificent feast is unnecessary – as long as the food is edible and you are eating it with people you love, no one will care if it’s not Michelin star standard. It doesn’t even matter if Christmas day goes smoothly – the best stories involve things going wrong.

Lowering your expectations doesn’t mean Christmas can’t be joyful and magical. In fact, the best Christmases are often the ones we think will be boring or difficult.

I’m not saying you can’t be optimistic; just be realistic and acknowledge that perfection doesn’t exist. Especially not when you are spending a lot of time with family! There will be arguments and problems. Hopefully they will be trivial, like running out of wrapping paper or accusing your loved ones of cheating at Monopoly, but they will crop up.

The trick is to handle the problems as they arise, which is easier when you aren’t expecting perfection. Arguments don’t have to ruin the whole festive season, so don’t let them.

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Don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to do too much in too little time. Your family and friends would rather you were less stressed than killing yourself trying to make individual place settings on Christmas Eve. Write a list of what you would like to do and prioritise the most important. Then whittle those down to the absolutely necessary.

Aim to do only what is absolutely necessary and do other stuff if you have time and find them enjoyable.

Your Christmas doesn’t have to look like an advertisement. Having all the tinsel and trimmings in place won’t guarantee happiness – in fact, the stress of doing so much will probably guarantee you will be miserable. Neither do you need to cram your festive season with parties and themed activities. Christmastime won’t automatically make you enjoy going out, especially if it’s not how you usually spend your time. If you would rather stay at home with a book, do it – I probably will!

 

  1. Communicate

Let your family and friends know how you feel. Being open might be difficult, but it reduces the risk of people making incorrect assumptions about you. For example, letting friends know you are turning down their invitations because you have anxiety prevents them from assuming you don’t want to spend time with them. They might not always understand, but there is more chance of them gaining understanding if you are honest and talk about what’s on your mind.

Being open and honest also means that other people might come up with solutions which you may not have considered. For instance, they might suggest you spend a quiet afternoon eating mince pies at their house, rather than going out on the town. Of course, it is also helpful if you can make alternative suggestions when declining invitations, even if it’s just saying you would like to see them when you feel better.

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Think about how you communicate and what you say. Some people appreciate warts-and-all honesty, whereas others prefer not to know the details. Be diplomatic – it probably won’t help to tell someone you find them very annoying and that’s why you don’t want to go to their party! Try to empathise with the other person and think about how they would like you to express how you feel. For example, you might need to preface your main points with extra explanations if someone tends to be particularly sensitive.

Pick the right moment, too. The best time to tell your mother you feel anxious and overwhelmed is not when she is in the middle of cooking Christmas dinner. Try to find a time when the person you want to talk to isn’t busy or flustered. A relaxed environment helps and a neutral one, such as a café or during a walk in the countryside, is often better.

If it’s easier, communicate via phone or text message.

I know many people prefer to have serious conversations face to face, but if the alternative is that you don’t tell anyone how you feel, it’s best to communicate however you can. Pay attention to tone when writing written messages, as it can be difficult to convey. Err on the side of caution and make it obvious when you are being serious, when you are being more flippant, etc. Sarcasm is best avoided, since it’s easy to misread.

Finally, remember to keep communicating. Your mood, emotions and symptoms will fluctuate over the festive period, so keep those close to you informed. It doesn’t have to be a constant dialogue – just mention when you are feeling more anxious/isolated/depressed/irritated so that your family and friends can adapt.

Communication helps your family and friends help you. It tells them what to expect and how they might support you. Even if the effects aren’t what you expected, at least you have been proactive and tried to make things run smoothly – that’s all anyone can ask.

 

To read Part Two of Your Christmas Survival Guide, click here.

For Part Three of Your Christmas Survival Guide, click here.

When Mental Illness Meets a Virus

Into my third week of a virus which is draining my energy, causing a painful chest and plaguing me with coughing fits at least every half an hour, I don’t feel great. The physical illness itself is bad enough, but my mental health is also taking a battering.

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Cold/flu type viruses can make people feel depressed even if they are otherwise healthy. Some symptoms are common to depression: lethargy, general achiness, lack of motivation. However, when you already have a mental illness, the effects are exacerbated.

In addition to being ill making you feel like crap, it is difficult to keep up self-care when you are ill.

Apart from having very little energy, I can’t exercise because my chest hurts. I have been walking the dog, but at a glacial pace. The cold air aggravates my chest and breathing heavily is even more painful. This means I have lost one of the key methods I use to manage my mental health.

As my motivation has waned, it has become harder to practice self-care. It seems to take an incredible effort to switch on my SAD lamp in the morning. Eating healthily is already a challenge thanks to the kitchen renovation, but the illness has made it harder to prepare healthy meals because of the effort involved. It’s easier to grab a cereal bar or a packet of crisps.

I have to turn to the self-care strategies I use when my mental health is worse than it currently is.

I’m focusing on self-care activities which take very little energy. These include listening to happy music (which includes Xmas music now it’s December!), soothing hot drinks (also good for my sore throat and general stuffiness) and trying to be mindful. I have also been reading a little more, which might not be classified as self-care, but is very enjoyable.

More than anything, I have to remind myself that this is a temporary setback. I will feel well again — hopefully soon! — and I will be able to think clearly again. I will be able to be more proactive, so hopefully will feel less overwhelmed.

In the meantime, I believe it’s my prerogative to feel a little sorry for myself and drink lots of hot Ribena…