- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.