Do You Have Bipolar Disorder? You Can Still Thrive This Holiday Season

Bipolar? You can thrive this holiday season – Tips on how to manage mania and depression during the holidays.

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This post was previously featured on the International Bipolar Foundation website (ibpf.org), here.

The holidays strike fear into many hearts, especially those of us with mental illness. But they don’t have to. People with mental health conditions, including bipolar disorder, can thrive during the holiday season.

Don’t Neglect Basic Self-Care

You won’t be able to enjoy the season if you neglect basic self-care. This applies to whatever episode you’re in. Make sure you get enough sleep, eat well, get your heart rate up for 30 minutes, drink enough water, get outside, and socialize every day. These six suggestions are the basic tenants of self-care, first outlined by Sophie at WellandWealthy.org. If you often do all six, you will feel better.

But how do you manage that during the holidays, which can upset your daily routine? Planning. You can plan to bow out of conversations if you’re overwhelmed, plan times to take your medication, and plan for downtime by yourself to recharge your social batteries.

Also, don’t be afraid to communicate your needs. Figure out your needs ahead of significant social events and prepare yourself to ask for help. (For a post on how to communicate with your family during the holidays if you have a mental illness, click here.) And try to avoid alcohol, especially if you’re taking medication.

What to Do if You’re Manic

If you are manic during the holidays, you may feel like partying and socializing 24/7. But mania borrows energy from the future, so there’s a crash coming if you don’t manage your enthusiasm. You need to pace yourself, not only for your own sake, but for those around you who might not be able to handle your verve.

When you’re at a party, check in with someone you trust on a regular basis to see if your behavior is edging out of control. Set a timer on your phone every thirty minutes to take breaks outside the main party area. Use this time to take stock of what you’ve been doing at the party.

In addition to taking care of yourself at events, keep in mind that overspending frequently accompanies mania. Spending too much on gifts can be quicksand. Before you search for them, set a budget, and be vigilant about sticking to it. Limit presents to one per family member or loved one.

One of my manifestations of mania is crafting, so I get obsessed with painting, baking, and stitching stocking-stuffers and other gifts. Because I’m rushing through the projects, they always turn out sloppy. Once I’m no longer manic, that’s obvious to me (unfortunately, it’s also obvious to everyone else when they open the gifts). Don’t follow my lead; if you must make homemade gifts, limit yourself to one project at a time, and budget enough time to complete them well.

What to Do if You’re Depressed

If you’re depressed during the holiday season, don’t worry, you can pull through this. Most people with depression hide away from the world. But being around others can help. If you’ve been invited to parties, make an extra effort to go.

When going to a party, make sure to prepare yourself physically and mentally. Take a shower. Drink some water. Psych yourself up, and plan out what to say if you need to bow out of a conversation. Try to talk to at least two different people. Don’t stick your head in the ground like an ostrich, as tempting as that is.

If you’re spending this holiday season alone, cities and churches often host free holiday events that you can attend. Try volunteering at a food bank or animal shelter. Burn through your Netflix backlog. Drink non-alcoholic eggnog. And if you can afford a change of scenery, go!

Final Thoughts

Regardless of how your mental health issues present, there are plenty of strategies to help you thrive during the holidays. Don’t neglect your basic self-care, don’t isolate yourself, and do keep an eye on your budget and energy levels. You can do this.

Have Bipolar? You Can Thrive During This Holiday Season - Tips and tricks to manage mania and depression during the holidays

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How to Communicate with Family During the Holidays When You Have a Mental Illness

family photo2
A picture of a mother, father, and their three children peeking out between white frames, as a family photo. Credit to flickr.com user Louish Pixel. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

The holidays can be a source of great joy for many people. But the season of celebrations can also be fraught with tension, especially when families get together. But if you have a mental illness like bipolar disorder, then navigating the heated conversations at the dinner table can be triggering and difficult. Read on to find out how to communicate effectively with family during the holidays when you have a mental illness.

1. Know Your Limits

One of the most effective ways to communicate with difficult family members starts with you knowing yourself. Before you find yourself pushed to your limits, advocate for breaks for yourself. Excusing yourself for a brief walk or a breath of fresh air will do wonders for your disposition. There’s no shame in seeking time away to ground yourself. If you suffer from bipolar disorder, check out this post on common bipolar triggers and how to manage them to avoid falling into a depressive or manic episode.

2. Redirect the Conversation with Humor

When you find yourself facing people asking probing questions about anxiety-producing topics like your reproductive plans, try gently redirecting the conversation using humor. Don’t answer the question if you don’t feel like doing so, but do try to give the asker a witty (and possibly self-depricating) comment. This is easier said than done, of course, and if this puts more pressure on you, use the next tip instead.

3. Firmly Establish Conversational Boundaries

Some family members may have the unfortunate tendency to expound on their offensive political opinions to others, especially captive audiences around the dinner table. Don’t take the bait and argue with them. Instead, firmly establish conversational boundaries. Try saying something like, “Aunt Mildred, I understand that you feel that way. But I don’t want to talk about X, Y, or Z tonight. Let’s just enjoy the party, please.” If Aunt Mildred continues, then use tip one and gently extricate yourself from the conversation to take a break.

4. Enlist the Help of a Trusted Family Member

If you have a loving spouse or partner, or even a beloved family member you are close to, enlist his or her help in managing other more divisive people. Check in with your partner and ask them to check in with you every half hour or so during parties or other family gatherings. If needed, develop a signal between the two of you so he or she can rescue you from unpleasant conversations.

5. Lean on Existing Support Systems

If you are traveling and won’t be able to meet with your usual therapist or psychiatrist, then make sure to have crisis hotlines or warmlines programmed into your phone. If you’re bipolar, one national warmline provided by Nami Orange County can be called at 877-910-9276. Online support groups can help as well; try HealthfulChat’s room focused on bipolar disorder.

6. Avoid Alcohol

This isn’t a fun tip, but alcohol can add fuel to the fires of family conflict. Staying sober will reduce the chances of your saying something you regret. If you do choose to imbibe, then know your limits, and drink plenty of water to avoid having a hangover the next day.

7. Eat Properly and Get Plenty of Sleep

This tip is similar to tip 1: take care of yourself. Try to avoid sugar as much as possible, stick to your normal, healthy diet, and go to bed at reasonable hours. If you take care of your body, then you will be better equipped to handle family members who talk your ear off. Also, take your meds.

Final Thoughts

Communicating with your family during the holidays when you have a mental illness isn’t an insurmountable task. Just make sure to take care of yourself–removing yourself from conversations if necessary–avoid alcohol, get support, and establish firm boundaries.

You can do this.

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How Privilege Affects Mental Healthcare

Like many people who celebrate Thanksgiving, I’m taking a hard look at what I should be grateful for. When I was young, my family was largely feast or famine. We survived multiple job losses, costly illnesses, and bankruptcies. In my teens, all seven of us lived in a trailer no bigger than 750 sq. ft. And I was always hungry.

Now, I am steeped in obscene amounts of privilege. I am white, and I hold two college degrees. Among other things, this means I have an easier time getting and taking medication. My nursing and Latin classes specifically enable me to understand medical terminology and the effects of medications on my body and brain. I am a very insistent advocate for my health.

I am also married to a partner with a steady, middle-class job, which means my anxiety about ending up homeless or going hungry now is largely irrational. We’ve only been married for five years, but he not only held my hand when I committed myself, but he puts up with my mood episodes today. We could still get divorced, as have so many others with bipolar. But we haven’t yet. We are very awkward when people ask about our married life, because we usually exist in a different bubble than they do.

Insurance Card
Credit to flickr photographer mtsofan. Used with permission.

My partner’s job has insurance. I can—and will—write a post on this benefit alone, because without it, I wouldn’t be writing this today. I’d be dead. My hospitalization four years ago cost $6638.61—and was completely covered. I was flabbergasted. We were newlyweds at the time, and would have been put into debt. Due to growing up having Medicaid or sometimes nothing at all, the feeling is still surreal.

Speaking of jobs, I am lucky enough to be self-employed while writing my book, which means I can have as many panic attacks as I need to have without getting fired.

I’ve been in therapy for years. I’ve also changed psychiatrists five times until I found one I liked. This process of doctor-finding is actually quite common, but we could afford the doctor’s visits, the pills, and the frequent blood draws to check for liver or thyroid damage, which means I was willing to invest in my health. And my nightly cocktail of medication—found through years of trial and error—actually works. There are side effects, of course, but as I understand it, they could be significantly worse.

And finally, I was able to keep my infant despite someone threatening to report me to Child Protective Services during my psychotic break.

Is my mental illness severe? Of course. But I am lucky, to an unrealistic extent. If I wasn’t covered by my partner’s insurance, I would have had go to work immediately after my breakdown to cover costs. If I hadn’t married him when I did, I would be living with my parents, homeless, or dead—and likely one of the latter. There are so many ifs, which terrifies me.

Mental stability—which should be a basic human right—is achieved only by those who can afford it.

Homeless and cold.
Credit to flickr photographer Ed Yourdon. Used with permission.

A disproportionate amount of the homeless are returning veterans, the mentally ill, or both. Would that more shelters could provide a secure environment and treatment for any atypical brain chemistries or traumas that they may have! I would happily part with my tax dollars to ensure that more people with schizophrenia have a chance to sleep in a warm bed rather than under a bridge. Ideally, they’d also have help moving on to more permanent housing and work.

The weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas warm my heart, but not just because I’m looking forward to spending time with friends and family. The generous outpouring of help around this time is mind-boggling. But I feel I have a responsibility to use my privilege year-round to help others who are less fortunate. First, I’ll keep in mind how much I have.

What struggles have you survived? And what privileges may have helped you through them?

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