Mental Health During the Holidays

Christmas. Hanukkah. Kwanzaa. Pagan ritual season. Or, for the secular among you, Happy Holidays.

A time commonly associated by many to eat, drink, and be merry with your fellow man, (and wallow in self-pity and your hollow loneliness in the face of rampant consumerism. Wait, what?) the holiday season is somewhat of a minefield for those combating mental health struggles - particularly when it comes to explaining your situation to your ever-so-slightly racist Aunt who you begrudgingly send an M&S voucher to every year in the name of family politics.

The irony lies behind the fact that despite the cheer-peddled songs about elves, reindeer, cookies and questionable life choices about kissing an imaginary Saint under the mistletoe, this time of year can actually be some of the toughest for those suffering from mental health issues.

Time after time, family outing after family outing, awkward small talk after awkward small talk, you are expected to present yourself in a way that is socially acceptable and not at all 'disruptive' to the eerily perky festive atmosphere. God forbid you're actually honest when somebody asks you how you are. God forbid you express yourself and actually get a decent conversation about where you're at going. No; society tells us that, through the same festive magic that brought you Santa Claus, all of a sudden all of your mind's turbulence and trauma disappears with a click of your fingers. It's the Christmas miracle everyone's been waiting for!

And, I get it. Dealing with mental health surrounded by human beings but devoid of connection can be heart-wrenching, harrowing, and perhaps even worsen your condition.

I used to be of the opinion that it's better to shy away and deal with these problems internally, on your own. And I still believe that self-care in this way serves an amazing, valid purpose which each and everyone of us should be incorporating daily.

Reading for thirty minutes, working out, meditating...all that jazz. Indispensable tools, but only part of a larger toolkit. I feel like we're missing out on the benefits of exposure therapy here.

I was reminded by this the other day when re-reading a great article by the wise Jonathan Haidt on trigger warnings, and the collective hysteria now present in education faculties. It might sound strange to correlate overtly offended privileged students with those who genuinely struggle with mental illness, but more and more research is indicating that it's worthy to point out the value of exposure therapy when it comes to mental illness. 

Though still in its early stages of medical development regards to treatment, exposure therapy has already revealed hopeful results in offering an alternative to medicine. (Which isn't meditation, CBT or holistic crashing related.) Using different variations, the patient can gain a sense of self-efficacy, emotional processing, and habituation towards a certain fear or trigger. For example, a patient with social anxiety might force themselves, as hard as it might seem at first, to attend one social gathering a month, or aim to approach two people a day and strike up a conversation. This small gesture then generates the event belief that people aren't so scary; that they can be liked; that, actually, connecting with humans and being vulnerable can be an incredible experience worth venturing into the unknown for.

It's this fear of facing the unknown that can hold so many of those who suffer from mental health back - lack of self-esteem coupled with the physiological repercussions of the illness can seem paralysing, almost dragging you back as opposed to forcing you still. The fear that people won't like you. The anxiety of forcing conversation out of yourself at a Christmas party. The gnawing abyss thinking the world would be better off without you if you were gone. It's the darkness and fear of not knowing how we could really be if we allowed ourselves to flourish that deep down terrifies us - the idea of stepping up to the challenge is never an easy one.

The process of facing one's fears - of slaying one's inner dragons - stems from so many mythologies, fables, powerful stories and heroic journeys, and is one that we can relate to on every level, whether watching a Shakespearean comedy or reading Harry Potter. We don't need to fight off an army or an evil magical overlord to prove ourselves or face our fears - we can do it on a basic level, everyday. And this is why the festive period should be seen as an imperative time of growth for those suffering mental illness. Given the right professional support and environment, we can, little by little, push ourselves out of our comfort zones, whether it be simply getting out of bed and get changed rather than stare up at the ceiling for hours at a time, or connecting to that long lost relative who you've struggled to converse with in the past are fantastic steps to recovery which extend beyond the written receipt of a medication subscription. Self-care isn't about fluffy bunny slippers, long hot baths or denial of reality - in fact, confronting the harshness of what life can throw at you, giving yourself the confidence and ability to trust yourself in difficult situations, knowing that you'll be OK no matter what, and trusting that you have the strength, courage and support to carry on, is the most powerful form of self-care you can give yourself. And, in my opinion, the best.

So, I'm not going to tell you to shy away. I'm not going to tell you to shut yourself away from the world for days at a time. It's healthy - and often necessary - to do this in small doses, if your mind works inwardly like mine. But to do it to the point where you are living in your comfort zone, rather than thinking of ways you can grow and recover from your mental illness will prove more detrimental in the long run.

Think short term pleasure, long term pain.

Force yourself (or, if you can't keep yourself accountable, get a mentor or loved one to encourage your progress) to carry out small yet empowering tasks every day to gain the benefits of mini-exposure therapy during the holidays. There's never been a better time to find ways to remind yourself that you are more than your anxiety, depression, PTSD, self-harm or suicidal notions. You are stronger than any of this, and deserve to feel empowered and at your best. But, guess what? Like all things in life, it takes work.

 GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN; ON MISSING LOVED ONES DURING THE HOLIDAYS

My eldest sister was my best friend, teacher, agony aunt, and easily one of the bravest and kindest people I've met. There will never not be an Emma-shaped hole left in the gaping heart of our family unit, especially during the holidays when society decides to double down on all that 'family Christmas tradition' rhetoric, inadvertently funnelling it down the throats of every grieving, vulnerable family worldwide.

No matter how much time has passed, it's very, very normal to get more emotional and less rational than usual during this time if you've suffered from a family loss.

It's also very normal for others not to fully comprehend the extent of your grief - not for lack of trying, or malice, but simply because they haven't experienced pain on such a large scale before, and therefore tend to act clumsy and awkward in an attempt to be kind to you. It's actually a sign that they care a lot, if it makes you feel any better.

There is no real cure for grief, nor is there an expiry date - like a dormant volcano, it can erupt and dismantle you at any given moment without much prior warning - but as time goes on, there is certainly much more room for you to better your coping mechanisms; reduce any residual PTSD symptoms; and overall be able to talk about your loved one with less of a pained grimace, and more of a lovingly nostalgic smile.

I have found that there is beauty in the pain. There is something almost transcendent in the fact that (no matter how spiritual or not you may be) your love for this individual remain untarnished, unwavering, and unequivocal even in the fact of time and death. (I think Shakespeare talked about that in a sonnet once. Man, he was cool.) It is something to be proud of, when people all around are consumed with presents and the material and your main concern becomes actual presence with the human beings, and the immaterial yet truly priceless pay-offs of connection. With great pain, you understand the true meanings life can bring - love, connection, and the strength to undergo such a tragic event and still come out unscathed, wiser, and more self-aware.

Christmas tends to exacerbate grief, and with it comes so many different ways of dealing with the pain. Some prefer to be on their own; others like to talk it out with the family. Whatever your method, it is irrelevant so long as it fills your needs and helps you to manage the sadness in a healthy, life-affirming way. My one suggestion would be is to avoid too much alcohol if you are feeling vulnerable, simply because being put in a sedated, unfocused state of mind is an unproductive way of dealing with tougher emotions.

It's also truly important to commemorate your loved one - their presence, memory, and even energy is always with us and our beautiful cosmos. It would be a shame not to acknowledge this through the beauty of ritual and family. For instance, every year as a family we find a decoration to go on the tree that reminds us of Emma, and every Christmas morning we go visit her plot at the crematorium and adorn it with tastefully shiny embellishments. We do it before the present opening, obvs, to balance out the emotional comedown and rise back up. (See. Tactical rituals.)

I then do a little meditation in the evening after the craziness draws to a close in her memory, and maybe journal all the things I loved - and still do - bout her as a person and how thankful I am that she made me a better Sophie.

Your ritual may look different. Your ritual might be reminiscing with others at the dinner table about the way they used to love their car keys in the fridge. Your ritual may be leaving an extra present under the tree. Your ritual might just even be going for a walk in a beautiful area of nature, connecting to the world around you and sitting mindfully with the melancholy you might face.

Or, especially if it's a recent passing, your ritual might just be getting through the day at all. Which is also beautiful, worthy, and as strong a ritual as any other can be. Be proud of your ritual, because your loved one would most certainly be proud of how well you're coping during this time of year.