Thursday, 21 December 2017

Coping with mental illness at Christmas

It's definitely beginning to look a lot like Christmas! With stores full of last minute shoppers, relatives you haven't heard from all year sending you well-wishes and the New Year's resolution crowds frantically scrolling down their goals for 2018, it's safe to say for everyone this time of year is hectic. But for someone struggling with mental illness, this time of year can be downright overwhelming.

There are many posts about this subject, with tips on how you can help yourself manage around this time of year. This post, I'm hoping to focus solely around dealing with anxiety and eating disorders and I really hope that some of these strategies can help you get through the Christmas and New Year holidays.

1) Christmas shopping can seem like a nightmare when your anxiety is up. There is nothing I hate more than being surrounded by people (who let's face it, are pretty stressed out) pushing and shoving when my anxiety is at its peak. This year, I did all my Christmas shopping from home, online, wrapped in a cosy blanket. This definitely helped take the pressure off, I got everyone's presents and didn't need to throw myself into a situation I wasn't ready for. This also meant that I got to build myself up enough to go to the Christmas Market for a couple of hours, with no pressure or expectations to buy anything. It's little planning like this that has definitely helped manage my anxiety and I hope something similar can help you too.

2) Huge family gatherings aren't uncommon around the holidays but often, with someone with anxiety and an eating disorder this can be very scary and stressful. Remember, you are allowed to spend Christmas how you wish too and your health is incredibly important. You are allowed to say no to visitors who may bring up stress or conflict for you. It's important that you feel safe and supported and to try to surround yourself with people who have your best interests at heart. If you are younger or in a situation where you have to go to a gathering you don't feel ready for, try to bring a +1. Someone who you trust and knows your struggles, that way you will feel a little more supported and have someone there who has your back.

3) Along the same lines, remember that this season is a holiday! It's ok to sit back and relax, take some 'me time' and do the things that make you happy and help your anxiety. Watch your favourite films (they don't have to be seasonal), get back into that hobby you left, read a new book, spend extra time with your cute furbabies, bake something, get crafty! It's ok to spend time by yourself, doing the things you want to do that make you feel happy. I love a quiet pamper night and I definitely intend to do many of them over the Christmas holidays.

4) Some of you reading this might be in treatment, whether that's inpatient/outpatient or privately. For a lot of us, this means not being able to see our therapists as regularly as usual and this often brings up a lot of feelings and anxiety. For this time of year, it's so important that we keep up our regular self-care and therapy strategies. Whether you've been practicing CBT techniques, mindfulness, an eating schedule, relaxation breathing's important that we keep those things up in the time away from our therapy. If you have a supportive family member or friend that can help you stick to that routine, that's great! Maybe have a little chat with them before Christmas about what you need and what will be helpful for you. If not, it's really important that you know that you are not alone and that help is available over Christmas and New Years. I will leave list of contacts for you at the end of this post.

5) Eating disorders and Christmas do not mix well and this time of year can be incredibly stressful. Please, please do not force yourself into a situation that you aren't ready for. If you have a meal plan, try your best to stick to that over the holidays. Often, it's the routine of scheduled eating that can really help keep our eating disorder voice at bay and manageable. If you are inpatient, quite often you will be allowed to go home for the day or a few hours on Christmas Day. Remember, it's ok to go back to the unit when you've had enough. This is your Christmas too and you are allowed to take some time for yourself.

6) Christmas doesn't have to be focussed on food. Shift the focus onto things that are less stressful for you. Playing games around meal times can often help decrease the anxiety. Have a film on in the background or the radio. Ask for something crafty so you have something to do before and after mealtimes. Going for a drive or a walk (if safe) (preferably with a cute doggo friend) can also really help.

As much as looking after yourself is incredibly important, it's also just as important for your family and friends to understand what is and isn't helpful:

  • If you know someone who has a history or current issue with an eating disorder, stay away from comments about physical appearance or food. Your 'you're looking well' might be coming from a warm place but from personal experience, trust me the translation gets lost and can quite often fuel the disorder. 
  • Be mindful of any discussions around fitness and diet. It's very easy to get sucked into those many unhelpful, fad diet adverts (that's a whole other blog post for another day) and talk about how many steps you plan to achieve but for someone with an eating disorder it's competitive nature can become incredibly dangerous. It can also make the sufferer feel guilty during recovery, like they too should be following these adverts etc...
  • "you need to get out more" isn't exactly what someone with social anxiety wants to hear. Remember that everyone celebrates and is allowed to celebrate the holidays however they choose. If someone turns down your invitation for a visit or Christmas party, be respectful and understand that for some of us, this is a difficult time and we need a little space for our heads. 
  • Try your best not to tread on eggshells. When someone is really going through it with their mental health, it can often leave an awkwardness in the air. Not knowing what to say or how to help. I've often found that normality helps, it doesn't draw attention to me and it helps me to see outside my own head. Offer them a chocolate like you would anyone else, invite them to the pub if you're going etc...just be respectful of their decision and try not to make a big deal out of it. 
I know that Christmas and New Years can feel completely overwhelming but I really hope that some of these tips can help ease that stress and help you feel more able to cope. You are not alone and there are many wonderful charities who have their phone lines open throughout the festive period. Please don't be afraid to reach out if you are struggling. 

Look after yourself. 


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