The holidays are upon us — that wonderful, magical, terrifying, triggering time of the year! Fa-la-la-la-la, and all that jazz, as a dispassionate Lucy deadpans in the holiday classic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
Mental health professionals know all too well that the holidays can be a tinderbox for people battling mental health issues — even Lucy continues to hang out her shingle during the festivities, offering her 5 cents worth to the Peanuts gang. The holidays present a veritable cornucopia of stressors and triggers — such as excesses in food, drink, expenditures, commitments, travel, and physical exertion, for starters. Add to that stressed family dynamics, unrealistic expectations, and the tendency of grief, loneliness, and unresolved emotions to pop up during the holidays, and it’s no wonder things can go sideways quickly.
People who are battling mental health foes like depression, addiction, emotional trauma, compulsions, eating disorders, personality disorders, and other issues go into the holiday season carrying a heavier load, only to be met with additional physical and emotional stressors. The demands are higher, routines are in flux, and even the best, most fulfilling experiences add to the stress burden.
James F. Zender, Ph.D., notes that the holidays “invite regression on multiple levels” for people whose emotional coping mechanisms are already stretched to the max. He says that this requires “an even more conscious effort to manage stress in order to remain buoyant during these festive times.”
There’s no easy answer to managing the dark side of the holidays, but approaching it with open eyes and a self-care game plan can go a long way toward helping avoid the pitfalls. The promise of happiness and joy are so over-hyped and over-sold during the holidays that we can all become victims of our own unrealistic expectations, setting the stage for disappointment, anxiety, and depression, which can then cascade into a whole host of unhealthy behaviors and mental health setbacks.
Approaching the holidays with an abundance of caution is also good medicine for loved ones and caregivers. Holidays can be an especially tense time for family members, who may be walking on eggshells, worried about their loved one relapsing or breaking down. Mental health professionals charged with caring for everyone’s needs also need to practice self-care to manage the increased pressure from many sides.
Simply knowing — and reminding ourselves and others — that the best time of the year is also the most emotional time of the year can help us all remember to slow down, simplify, and be more conscious and realistic in our expectations. To the extent possible, we all need to be willing to give ourselves the gift of peace.
I know wherefrom I speak: The holidays marked my own break from questionable mental health into full-blown psychosis some years ago (7, to be exact). The season was a literal “tinderbox” for me: After I pretty much ruined Christmas with my erratic behavior, my wife and children left town to visit relatives without me, saying I was acting strange. Tormented by increasingly real delusions and paranoia, I snapped and decided to set my house on fire. It was, I felt, the only way to finally expose the lies within.
Thus began a descent into drug-induced psychosis that lasted over a year, eventually leaving me broke, broken, and homeless. I’m lucky; I eventually found my way back to sobriety and sanity, rebuilt my life with the help of my incredible family, and wrote a book, Jesus Goes To Hollywood: A Memoir Of Madness, chronicling my journey, which I’m publishing in serialized form over the next 41 weeks on Medium. I released the first chapter on Thanksgiving Day. You can read it here
I’m not naive enough to think my spectacular break from reality could have been forestalled by better self-care during the holidays, but I know the additional stresses of the time certainly contributed to how quickly and how badly things went. These days, the holidays, particularly Thanksgiving, have become a time for me to reflect on how lucky and grateful I am for the family that helped bring me back from the edge of the madness. And it’s a time I’m extra careful with myself, as I’ve seen how badly things can go. You know, fa-la-la-la-la and all that jazz.