If you asked me 20 years ago what my favorite holiday was I would say, without hesitation, it was New Year’s Eve.
I loved the banter and frivolity, complete with streamers and goofy glasses. I loved the cheap party hats and the celebratory drinks. And I loved dancing in the street, with shoes in my hand and fireworks in the Philadelphia sky.
But the best part about New Year’s Eve was the promise and potential of the new year. I used to feel so much hope in tomorrow. Or maybe that was the Champagne and glitter tainting my view.
But my love of New Year’s has changed in recent years, thanks to changes in my mental health — namely my bipolar disorder diagnosis.
As I’ve come to understand my disorder and what triggers my symptoms, I’ve learned that holidays can be tougher to get through than I ever imagined they would be.
From Loving the Holidays to Loathing Them
Of course, you may be wondering how this shift occurred. How does one go from loving the holidays to loathing them all because of a diagnosis?
I haven’t lived with bipolar disorder for all of my life. My childhood was (more or less) normal. My teen years, while rebellious, were relatively benign. And while I dealt with depression in my early twenties, my manic episodes (periods of unusually high excitement, energy, or irritability) were few and far between — and I wouldn’t come to understand them for many, many years.
But I began to notice little shifts as I got older. Fireworks, which I once loved, became a source of anxiety. The clamor, chaos, and noise made them overstimulating and overwhelming for me. Drinking, and increased presence of alcohol, became problematic. I cannot tell you how many times I did shots on Thanksgiving — or blacked out at Christmas. And that was just the beginning.
My urge to splurge in ways like this happens on most holidays. Impulsivity and impulse control — which is something many who have manic episodes struggle with, according to Cleveland Clinic — is common for me. I go into debt every time my kiddo has a birthday (and especially on Christmas). And I tend to abandon the “basics” that help me manage my symptoms — routines like sleep schedules and healthy eating are often upended, even on seemingly smaller holidays like Halloween and Fourth of July.
Of course, when I was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my early thirties, these things began to make sense. These problems added up, and I soon learned the holidays were triggers for me (triggers being situations or circumstances that bring on or exacerbate symptoms of bipolar disorder).
Now, any holiday that disrupts my routine is cause for concern (sticking to a consistent daily routine for meals, exercise, and sleep can be very helpful for mood management among people with bipolar disorder, according to Mayo Clinic). Fourth of July, for example — and the days both before and after — affect my sleep schedule, thanks to chest-rattling bangs and booms from fireworks. A disrupted sleep schedule can easily cause me to spiral into hypomania or, worse, a full-blown manic episode.
Disrupted Routines Make Managing Bipolar Tougher
It’s very important for people with bipolar disorder to have a structured routine, which is known to be helpful for mood stability. But during any holiday, there are often many disruptions to our usual schedules and routines. These kinds of disruptions can trigger my symptoms.
Of course, I am not alone. As many as 64 percent of people with a mental health condition feel their symptoms worsen during the holidays, according to prior survey findings from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
For me, the reasons it’s a challenge to manage my mental health over the holidays are complex. Mental health professionals tend to take time off just like everyone else, so regularly scheduled appointments may be canceled. For me, it feels like there are more social expectations from friends and family, particularly around Christmas. There are family gatherings, Friendsgivings, and office parties — and at each, my presence is assumed.
And as I mentioned, when I attend holiday parties, my toughest triggers usually do, too. I find most holiday celebrations involve alcohol, and in general alcohol use can — and does — worsen my symptoms. I’ve admittedly tried to use alcohol to self-medicate my symptoms (something that’s common for some people with mood disorders like bipolar disorder, prior research shows).
There are also other contributing factors. As I mentioned earlier, if you live with bipolar disorder, impulse control — particularly financial impulse control, according to Mayo Clinic — can sometimes be an issue. But with the expectation to spend (often excessively) during the holidays already being high, this can put you under even more undue stress.
This can create unique problems for many people with bipolar disorder. People living with this condition are often doing the best they can to manage their symptoms, but societal expectations can sometimes make them feel like they should go into debt from holiday spending anyway. This can cause some people to cycle into a depressive episode and put them at real risk of worsened symptoms.
RELATED: 7 Ways to Cope With Bipolar Disorder During the Holidays
My 7 Tried-and-True Coping Strategies During the Holidays
So how do I cope during the holidays? Here are seven of my go-to strategies.
Are things perfect? No. I still have a hard time during the holidays, and (admittedly) certain things trigger me more than others. My credit card statement is proof that I struggle with things like balance and impulse control.
But with these coping strategies, I am able to tolerate the holidays. I am able to celebrate them. I am able to enjoy them.
1. Stick to Treatment
First and foremost I try to maintain some semblance of a routine, which is important for managing my symptoms. Sure, there are things which are beyond my control. External stimuli, like fireworks, will affect my sleep. “Peopling” (being around lots of people) will affect my anxiety. But I take my medication daily and as prescribed. I keep all appointments and try to schedule check-in calls if I know I will need additional support.
I run frequently and often. Exercise is one of the main ways I manage my mental health, and I try not to sacrifice it, even when I am traveling. Even if I am away.
3. Prioritize Eating
If you have bipolar disorder, eating nutritiously and having consistent meal times can help you manage symptoms, according to Mayo Clinic. It can be tough for me to stick with this over the holidays. I try to eat nutritious foods — or at the very least, I make sure I eat three meals a day. Eating regularly and consistently is one of the simplest but most important ways I can care for myself during times of uncertainty, disruption, and stress.
4. Try to Go to Bed and Wake Up at the Same Times Each Day
I go to bed at a set time, even if I am wired. Even when I am wide awake. This helps me stick to my routine, which is particularly important during the holidays.
5. Shower Regularly
I make sure I shower, which (if you know me) is a feat. Due to the depressive aspect of bipolar disorder, showering is, more often than not, a laborious chore for me.
6. Stay Connected With Others
I stay in touch with my support network. I (try to) avoid shutting down and pulling back, which are things I do all too often when I am feeling depressed or overwhelmed.
7. Set Boundaries
In addition to maintaining a routine, I try to be honest with myself and with my family and friends. This means saying “no” and setting boundaries. It means avoiding some people and certain places, and it means declining invitations and (on occasion) staying home.
When I do go out, I carry comfort items and fidgets. I always wear a cardigan, hoodie, or shawl. There is always something I can spin, click, or twiddle with in my purse. And I’m getting better at walking away when I am feeling distressed, anxious, apprehensive, or overwhelmed.