Sunday, 23 December 2018

Coping with Christmas and Mental Illness

I’ve always been someone that has loved Christmas. The build up, adverts on TV, lights going up around my town and the day itself spent with loved ones. But for a lot of my life I have also struggled with mental health problems, so I know how difficult Christmas can be when you’re fighting mental illness at the same time. It’s the reason why, this year, I wanted to do a post on my blog with some suggestions for getting through Christmas when you have a mental health problem. Obviously everyone is different, so not all of the advice will suit everybody, but hopefully there will be something here that will help make Christmas that little bit easier. 

These tips and words of advice have come from a number of places – from when I was in hospital and received guidance from my therapists and doctors, to speaking to others going through difficulties, as well as things I have learnt myself along my journey. I’ve decided to split this post into two halves. The first half will contain general suggestions for anyone struggling with a whole range of different mental illnesses, from Depression and Anxiety to Bipolar Disorder or a Personality Disorder. But in the second half, I wanted to focus specifically on helping anyone who is currently fighting an eating disorder. Although some of the points can apply to anyone, I found through being in eating disorder treatment that I picked up specific pieces of advice around managing food and eating disorder behaviours over the Christmas period. There are quite a few points, but I’ve tried to organise them and split them up to make the post as easy to follow as possible.

Coping with Christmas and Mental Illness in general

Try not to compare yourself to others

Like a lot of the advice I’ve picked up, this one is easier said than done! And it’s something that I really try hard not to do the whole year round, not just at Christmas. But especially at Christmas, I can often feel completely overwhelmed and can feel like everyone else is having an amazing time whilst I’m drowning under wrapping paper and budgeting. Social media can be particularly difficult (as much as I love it!) when you’re scrolling through Instagram or Facebook and all these beautiful photos keep popping up of people decorating their homes, wrapping their presents or going on amazing Christmassy trips. It’s easy to think that everyone has got their lives sorted and that everyone else is having the perfect Christmas, but it’s important to reassure yourself that this really isn’t true. 

Yes, they may be posting lovely photos online, but we don’t know what’s going on behind those snapshots. The rest of their house could be a total mess, they may have been up all night just to get their presents wrapped or that Christmas cake made and decorated or they may be stressing out about money. So as hard as it is not to take those posts at face value and feel like a complete failure, I find it so helpful to remind myself that the majority of people will be stressing out about Christmas in one way or another, so I’m definitely not alone!

Plan social activities

I don’t know about you, but when I’m struggling with my mental health, the last thing I want to do is be sociable. I would much rather shut myself away at home and distance myself from the rest of the world. But in the long run, this usually results in me just feeling lower – convincing myself that no one cares and that I’m completely alone in the world. So I think it can be helpful to plan a sensible amount of social activities over the Christmas period so that you’re not isolating yourself and ending up alone with your negative thoughts. Obviously you need to make sure you are planning things that you are going to enjoy, or if you’re not sure you’re going to enjoy them, at least planning things where you know you will feel safe and comfortable. I can’t think of anything worse than going out clubbing until the early hours, so I’m much more likely to plan to meet a friend for a cuppa or to ask someone on a cinema date to see a Christmassy film. But even something as ‘little’ as asking a friend or family member over to watch a DVD will make a difference to your mood, so try and have a think about what you feel you could manage to do over the next few weeks.

But also have some ‘me’ time

As important as it is to make sure you socialise, I also think it is just as vital to allow yourself some time alone. I actually quite enjoy being on my own (as long as it’s not all the time) and as long as it’s planned, I don’t think it’s a negative thing at all. Time alone gives us the opportunity to relax and recharge our batteries, which is much needed at this time of year. So whether you decide to spend an hour or two reading a good book, watching a film on Netflix, having a bubble bath or just catching up on writing your Christmas cards, don’t feel bad about not being out and about 24/7.

Write lists

I’m a big list writer and will happily start my list with a few things I’ve already done, just so I can tick them off and make myself feel a bit better! But especially when Christmas comes round, I think it can be really helpful for our mental health to write things down. At this time of year, I can often just feel like my head is spinning with all the different things I need to get done. It sends my anxiety through the roof and then I usually end up feeling more depressed because I’m so overwhelmed that I just don’t know where to start. But writing all those things whirring round in my head down can really help me to reduce that anxiety – all of a sudden instead of all of these things going round in my head, they are now on a piece of paper and I don’t have to constantly think about them any more. It also really helps me to feel motivated as I begin to tick things off my list because I can look back and see what I’ve achieved. 

Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself

I feel like with this piece of advice, it’s do as a say and not as I do! Because I’m terrible at following this one! As Christmas comes round, we can often feel like there are so many things that we ‘have’ to do. Whether that’s writing Christmas cards for your whole address book, baking festive treats for the school Christmas bake sale or preparing Christmas lunch for the extended family – there are always things that we tell ourselves we must do. But I think it can be helpful to take a bit of a step back and actually look at all the things on our to-do list and ask ourselves if they really need to be done. Or if they need to be done in the way we are currently trying to do them. So, rather than sending Christmas cards to everyone in your address book, why not just send them to those closest to you? Or tell everyone that instead of sending cards this year, you are going to donate to charity instead. Do you really need to bake three different types of treats for the school bake sale? And if you’re hosting Christmas lunch, why not ask your guests to pitch in and bring some of the dishes with them? We tend to end up thinking we need to do 110% and to do it all ourselves, when in reality the pressure we are putting on ourselves is not necessary (believe me, I’m the worst for doing this!) There’s nothing wrong with asking others to help you or for cutting things down. People who love you won’t mind and would much rather you were healthy and happy at Christmas. 

Talk to someone

If you’re feeling worried/stressed/upset or anything else about Christmas, then please make sure you talk to someone about it rather than bottling up all those negative feelings. I know it can sometimes be really difficult to talk to friends and family about your mental health, so if you’re struggling to talk to those around you perhaps look further afield. If you’re having regular therapy, then talk about your worries there – it’s what its there for and you will feel a lot better for getting those stresses off your chest. I often found in therapy, I would bring something up that was really worrying me, and talking about it would help me put it into perspective. By the end of my session that anxiety wouldn’t feel half as bad. If you don’t currently have a therapist, there are also charities that offer helplines. I’m a big fan of Mind and The Samaritans who have both helped me through some really difficult times.

Get some sleep

Getting into a good sleep routine can make the world of different to our mental health, but like so many other things that are good for us, it can be easier said than done! Especially when Christmas comes around, it can be very tempting to stay up late and wrap presents or watch something on TV. But the next morning you end up feeling groggy, lethargic and more anxious or depressed than usual. So, if you can, try to get yourself into a regular bedtime routine to give your body the time it needs to recharge. Whether that’s having a warm bath, reading some of your book with a cup of tea and then snuggling into bed or simply turning off the computer at the same time each night, it’s amazing the difference a routine can make (this is one I am definitely trying to get myself to follow!)

Get outside

This time of year, it is so tempting to just hibernate inside away from the cold, dark and rain. But I know for me, if I spend too much time inside I can start to feel the effect on my mood. I start to feel more down, more lethargic and just generally more frustrated by life. It’s not easy when the weather is rubbish, but even if you just go out in the garden for a few minutes or open your bedroom window to feel the fresh air on your face, it can make a real difference. If I can, I like to try and get out in my wheelchair for a bit of a ‘walk’ – seeing the frosty grass or the leaves changing colour and smelling that bonfire smell just really seems to help lift my mood a bit. And when life is so busy and everyone’s rushing around getting ready for Christmas, getting back to nature and away from the hustle and bustle can really help to calm my anxiety.

Set realistic goals

This is another point that doesn’t just have to apply over Christmas. But especially at this time of year, when you feel like you need to be doing everything, seeing everyone and giving everything, it is really important to be realistic in the goals you are setting yourself. I find goal setting quite helpful for my mental health because it gives me something positive to focus on and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. But there’s no point in setting unrealistic goals that will just leave me feeling like a failure or completely burnt out before Christmas has even arrived. I try to plan what presents I want to get everybody and also roughly how much I am able to spend on each person. It’s very easy to get carried away before you realise how much money you’ve spent, and with money being one of my biggest anxieties over Christmas, setting realistic spending goals just helps reduce that anxiety a bit. I also find it helpful to look at my calendar for the whole of December so I don’t put too much pressure on myself. I look at the things I have to do like hospital appointments, then try and schedule in a few nice social activities, but also make sure I’ve got days when I can just be at home.

Have a plan of escape

Something I learnt while I was in therapy was to have a plan of escape for if things were getting too much for me in social situations. When you’re struggling with your mental health, just going along to social gatherings can be difficult. And I know I often feel like once I’m in that social situation I may not be able to leave, which just ends up sending my anxiety through the roof. So before events now, I will often have a plan in my head of what I will do if things get too overwhelming. This will depend on where I’m going and who I’m with. If I’m with people I’m close to, who really understand my mental health, then I find it a lot easier to just be open with them and let them know that I need to head off because I’m not feeling great. But if I’m with people I don’t know so well, it can be helpful to just have an excuse to leave already planned. For example, saying that you need to head off because you have an early start the next day, or you need to get home to let the dog out – yes, they can be little white lies, but if it means you are actually able to get out and do something in the first place then I think that’s OK. I know I often find that just having that escape plan is enough and that it takes some of the anxiety of going out away so I don’t end up needing to use it.

Limit your alcohol intake and eat sensibly

I know this piece of advice is fairly common sense, but when you’re struggling around Christmas it can be tempting to turn to things that might make it feel easier, like alcohol and food. I’m not saying you need to be a saint – we all deserve to enjoy ourselves and take part in the festivities if we want to. But I know from experience that drinking or eating too much just ends up making me feel worse in the long run. Alcohol is a depressant, so as great as it might make you feel when you’re first drinking it, it’s likely to lower your mood as it begins to wear off. And as much as I love all the treats around Christmas, I also know that stuffing myself full of mince pies, Yule log and Christmas tree chocolates just makes me feel sick and lethargic for days later. I try to live by the saying ‘Everything in moderation,’ and that seems to help me enjoy these things without making myself feel worse.

Learn to say no…but don’t be afraid to say yes

I am very much a ‘yes’ person. If someone asks me to do something, I am more than likely to agree. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you start to put everyone else before yourself all the time, things can start to get too much. As I’ve got older though, I’ve learnt that it’s OK to say no to things! If your calendar is filling up and you just need a bit of quiet time, perhaps suggest meeting up with your friend after Christmas. Or if they invite you to an event that you really feel you can’t manage, why not suggest just meeting up for a cuppa instead. Saying no in the right circumstances can really help you to feel empowered and like you are taking control of your own mental and physical health. 

Although it’s good to say no sometimes, it is also important to say yes too! I know this sounds like a bit of a contradiction, but you don’t want to go from saying yes to everything to saying no to everything. It’s important to find a happy balance. Sometimes, someone might ask me to do something and my gut reaction is to say no. But then I give it some thought, and although it might scare me a bit, I try to push myself out of my comfort zone. Nine times out of ten, I come back having really enjoyed myself, which in turn has a positive effect on my mental health. I guess the moral of the story is – you need to feel like you’re in control of what you’re saying yes and no to, rather than feeling like others are dictating your life.

Look at the bigger picture

This is a technique I use quite a lot and I find it really helps to put things into perspective. When I’m feeling really stressed out about Christmas (or another event) I try to remind myself that it’s only one day. One day out of 365 other days in the year. Looking at it that way, it doesn’t seem quite so daunting, and if I can get through those 24 hours, then I’ve done it! And in a month’s time, will I still be stressing about Christmas? No, it will be a distant memory. Looking at the bigger picture just helps me to reduce my anxiety around them a bit and look at them in relation to everything else that’s going on in my week/month/year.

It’s OK not to feel excited

This final piece of advice is possibly the one I have found most helpful over the years. As Christmas approaches, everywhere we look people are telling us to get excited, look forward to the big day and go a bit crazy. So it can feel quite difficult if those are the last things you feel like doing. But remind yourself that it’s OK if you don’t feel those things – believe me, not everyone does. Give yourself permission to just feel however you are feeling at the time. If you’re worried, then that’s OK. If you’re sad, then you’re allowed to feel that way. Yes, you may not want to, but it’s important to acknowledge and talk about those feelings because they’re there for a reason. And it just takes off the pressure of forcing yourself to be happy when you just aren’t. 

Coping with Christmas and an Eating Disorder

Stick to your meal plan

Generally, if you’re in eating disorder treatment, you are likely to have a meal plan that you follow every day. So if you’re just starting your recovery, or are struggling a lot at the moment, then it’s OK to just stick to your everyday plan if that’s what feels safest at the time. You might feel a bit different if you’re not eating exactly the same as everyone else around the table, but the important thing is keeping on track with your recovery. And if that means sticking to your meal plan, then that’s absolutely fine.

But adapt your plan if you can

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sticking to your normal plan, but if you feel able to (and it won’t put your recovery back) then it can be good to change things about a bit over Christmas. There are lots of different foods this time of year, and it can feel really scary when its things you haven’t necessarily eaten for a long time. But while I was in treatment, we were encouraged to adapt our meal plans to include some traditional Christmas foods as well. So, for example, instead of our usual biscuits at snack time, we might have a mince pie instead. And for dinner on Christmas Day, we would incorporate the Christmas meal that the rest of our family were eating. It just meant that we were challenging ourselves a bit, but also that we felt part of Christmas because we were joining in with everyone around us. 

Prepare and plan

Talking of meal plans; I found it so important to make sure I had my meal plan set well in advance of Christmas. I would sit down with my family and we would go through what they would be eating around Christmas. They would then help me write my own plan, just like I would with my normal meal plans, including snacks, puddings etc. Doing this well in advance just meant that we all knew what to expect – I knew what I was meant to be eating, as did my parents, and it reduced the likelihood of arguments over food on the day. 

Eat regularly

Meal times can be a bit all over the place over the Christmas period, so it’s important to make sure you are eating regularly, especially if there are going to be long gaps between main meals. I know that I found, if I allowed myself to get too hungry I would either end up binging, or I would find it really hard to start eating again. So eating at regular intervals helped me keep on top of things like that. Having your own supply of snacks with you can be really helpful, and this is also where your meal plan will help too.

Try not to label foods good and bad

This was something that was drummed into us in eating disorder treatment – there is no such thing as a good or a bad food, despite what the media might try and tell us. And especially at Christmas, this can be really hard with different foods and everyone talking about weight gain, eating naughty things and the post-Christmas diet. But try to remind yourself that it’s all about moderation. If you eat a mince pie for your snack, then there’s absolutely nothing ‘bad’ about that. Yes, if you sat and ate five packets of them, then that may not be such a good idea. But eating a balanced diet and allowing yourself a range of different foods is what is most important in your recovery.

Have a list of distractions

I have always found after meals quite a difficult time, and I spent a long time struggling with making myself sick after eating. So I find it really helpful to have a list of possible distractions – things I can do once I’ve finished eating to give me something more positive to think about. These distractions can be pretty much anything that works for you. Whether it’s colouring, reading, watching a film, listening to music, knitting, writing letters – the list is endless. 

Conversation cards

It’s not just the time after eating that is difficult, as mealtimes themselves can be a struggle too. This can be made worse around Christmas, when perhaps you’re eating with people you don’t normally have to eat around. It can often feel like everyone’s eyes are on you (even though I promise you they’re not). But something that can help with this is to have conversation cards on the table. This is something people often do around Christmas anyway, just to add a bit more fun to meal times, so it doesn’t have to be specifically because you have an eating disorder. It just gives everyone things to talk about to keep conversation away from anything that you might find triggering.

Play music

Another tip for during meal times is to have music playing (and Christmas music would be great at this time of year!) When I was in Day Patient Treatment, we would always have the radio playing during our meal times and it really did help. It takes away that awkward silence and would give me something to focus on if I was particularly struggling. 

Ask a relative to speak to extended family

This is the time of year when we tend to eat around people we don’t ordinarily eat around, and this can be incredibly difficult when you’ve got an eating disorder. It may be that you have friends or family coming to your house over Christmas, or you may have been invited somewhere yourself. If possible, it can really help if someone you are close to can speak to everyone else in advance about what to avoid saying. Some people can think that commenting on weight gain or what a good portion you’re eating will be helpful, when in reality it can trigger a relapse – the last thing you want to happen. So if a close friend or relative can talk to everyone in advance, it takes away that worry that people might say something triggering on the day. And it can also help them to feel less anxious about what they’re going to say to you too!

Have a supporter

This sounds very official, but in reality it just means finding someone you trust to look out for you on the day. When I was in treatment and we went to family gatherings, I would talk to my Mum or Dad in advance and agree some signals that I could make if I was finding things too much. They could also keep an eye on me and look out for if I needed a bit of extra support. Having that safety blanket there definitely made social situations and meal times a bit less daunting. 

Continue as normal after Christmas

If you’ve changed things up a bit over Christmas or eaten foods that you don’t usually eat, it can be tempting to try and compensate in the days and weeks after. Guilt can take over and all of a sudden you feel like you need to restrict and cut things out of your plan, but believe me when I say it really doesn’t help you in the long run. If you’re struggling after Christmas, then please do talk to someone, whether it’s your therapist, someone close to you or the Beat Helpline. It’s much better to talk about those feelings than it is to start reverting back to eating disorder behaviours.

Be kind to yourself

My final point for this post is just to try and be kind to yourself. I know that this is so much easier said than done, and it’s something I still try to work on every day, but I think it’s one of the most important things we can do. Focus on all the things you have achieved this year – however big or small they are. Focus on the fact that you’re making it through Christmas, and even if you slip up, that’s OK – you don’t need to beat yourself up. Slip-ups are part of recovery and we all make mistakes. I just keep trying to remind myself that I deserve to be happy and to eat nice foods (and even if I don’t believe it, I still keep telling myself so that one day, hopefully I will believe it). 

I really hope that somewhere in this post you might find something that will help you get through this Christmas. And I really hope that the New Year will bring you peace, comfort and happiness. 

Do you have any advice for coping with Christmas when you have a mental illness?

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