Coping with Christmas
In this blog one of our Young Champions talks about how to cope with Christmas.
Christmas is meant to be a fun, uplifting, and family-orientated time. But what many people forget is that mental illnesses do not have a Christmas break.
I live with anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and anorexia nervosa. I am also autistic. And, as much as I love Christmas, it is also an incredibly difficult time. My symptoms are heightened throughout autumn and winter, which lands Christmas bang in the middle of my worst patch.
My anxiety is always made worse by busyness, stress and loud noises – the less enjoyable things that come with the festive season. Too many stressors or sensory factors can lead to me having hours-long panic attacks.
OCD is an anxiety disorder. This means for me that it can be influenced by many of the same factors. Personally, the key difference in trigger is feeling out of control. If I’m not able to manage the situation, I often mentally find new ways to be in control. These are not rational in any way – for example, if I am separated from my mother in a busy shop, my OCD may cause me to react by completing rituals. Christmas brings many situations that I can’t control, like that example. There’s no way I can control the shop or where my mum is, so I subconsciously decide that it’s unsafe for her to be away from me. Then, I’ll go down the path of thinking she’s going to be killed by somebody in the shop, and that I can stop it by, say, tapping each shelf five times.
My depression is always made worse by stress too. And the change in weather and daylight also impacts it – after all, sunlight is a source of ‘happy’ vitamin D. As my mood dips, my motivation disappears and my thoughts get darker and more dangerous.
And then there’s anorexia. As you can imagine, a holiday filled with food is intimidating. But it’s not just that – folks with a ‘healthy’ relationship with food seem to take this time of year to make comments about food others are eating, or joke about going on a diet to lose weight after Christmas.
Seeing food treated as ‘bad’ or something to counteract is deeply upsetting for me. I can snap from ‘okay, I’ll try’ to ‘I’m not eating that’ the moment somebody makes a small comment. So I’ll often avoid social events with those who don’t understand my illness. Even family can sometimes be very inappropriate when it comes to weight and diet talk.
But of course, there’s always something you can do, and ways to be helped. In my opinion, the best way to combat Christmas blues is to make a plan of action. So here’s some ways to make Christmas a little more comfortable.
If you get very anxious around Christmas, it might be an idea to make a loose schedule of what you are going to do over the holidays. This could be what day you are going to be seeing certain people, and how long for. And of course, there can be perceived pressure with presents. So you could plan what gifts you are buying, when you can afford them and what your budget is. The point is not to micro-manage. This will likely worsen anxiety if things don’t go to plan. Instead, it’s to give you a sense of how much you are taking on, what is important, and when you can rest.
With OCD, this can help, but here it’s even easier to over-organise. Asking someone to help you out, and be your point of call if obsessions begin to take over, could really help.
For depression, it’s great to fall back on therapeutic techniques. If you haven’t been to therapy, you can read more on approaches online, and learn a little about how to use things like affirmations, mindfulness and wise mind. And you could get yourself a practical gift, such as a SAD light box, which simulates sunlight.
And for anorexia and other eating disorders, it could really help to put some boundaries in place. If you have someone you trust to respect your food needs, they could not only help with keeping you calm about what you are eating, but could also step up if you don’t feel comfortable asking people not to say something.
Remember that your need for safety comes above someone else’s want for a (damaging) conversation. So if you have to, you or someone else can set some guidelines around food chat before social and family events.
This could be something like ‘no labelling foods as good or bad’, or ‘no calorie talk’. Of course, this is not foolproof – people forget, and sometimes people also think they know best. In this case, a calm but firm reminder often does the trick. I’m not really one to talk up at times like these, so it wouldn’t be realistic for me to plan on doing this. However, I’m more comfortable with my mum doing so for me. ‘Can we please remember that food isn’t a punishment to anyone’ is usually enough to set people back on track, and if not, ‘Maddi has anorexia and finds food talk difficult, please respect that’ almost always works. It may be intimidating, but remember that your loved ones don’t want you to be hurt by them. They need guidance, but usually respond with respect.
Hopefully, this has helped to not only shine light on some of the issues myself and others may face at Christmas, but also gives some idea on how to cope. If you want more self-care and coping tools, not just for Christmas but any time, why not check out www.onmymind.info.
On My Mind is a website that aims to empower young people to make informed choices about their mental health and wellbeing. The pages were co-produced by young people to help other young people. The website includes a self-care page that has 89 self-care strategies, and an urgent help page that features organisations that offer help and support for young people.