In my last article I wrote about creating reasonable expectations for the holidays and how that can help your mental health. Today, I want to talk about the stress of holidays with family.
Now, don’t get me wrong, family can be great, but more often than not, holidays cause a gathering of family members you both gel with and those you don’t and I hear from a lot of people that they hate such family gatherings. But why? Are family gatherings worse for people with a mental illness?
Families and Mental Illness
In short, yes, family gatherings can be harder for people with a mental illness. Here’s why:
- Mental illness often runs in the family so many family members may be struggling with their own mental illness and addiction issues.
- The stress of the holidays exacerbates possibly already out-of-control bipolar and anxiety symptoms.
- Some family members are often unsupportive to those with a mental illness up to an including believing that mental illness doesn’t exist at all.
- Some families put pressure on the person with the mental illness to behave in ways that harm their mental health instead of help it (like insisting they go to parties or drink with everyone else).
- Some families bring up very bad memories and this can cause additional stress on the person with bipolar.
And, in short, all these are stressors and stressors are very bad for people with a mental illness. Unlike your average person who may experience short-term distress due to these stressors, someone with a mental illness may be put into a full-blown episode because of them.
Handling Families When You’re Bipolar
If you have a supportive family you love being around, great! But if you don’t, here are some things to keep in mind:
- You do not owe you family anything that compromises your health. If the health problem you had was cancer and you knew that being around your family would worsen your cancer, this would probably be clear to you. The rules don’t change just because it’s a brain disorder.
- Stay away from things you hate. Seriously. Stand up for yourself. Declare that you won’t be going to your drunken uncle’s house. Say that you won’t attend gatherings that you know will just end in screaming fights. Decline invitations that you know will make your symptoms flare up.
- Don’t be a sheep. Don’t do things just because everyone else expects you to. Don’t do things just because everyone else does. Do what is best for you.
- Claim personal boundaries and space. Rest when you need to. Avoid conversations that you need to. Don’t let your family bully you into things that you know will hurt you.
- If you mental illness comes up, remember that the closed minds of others doesn’t affect what you know and live with every day. Don’t let Aunt Mary’s stringent anti-mental illness views affect your self-image. Stand up for yourself or just walk away if you need to.
In short, don’t be afraid to make ripples. If you don’t change, then your experience of the holidays never will. You can take part in what you enjoy and leave the rest. Really. It is possible.
Because your holidays don’t have to be a rerun of every year since you were 12. Your holidays can be what you want and what you make them. If this means being on a sunny beach instead of with your family altogether, then do it. True, people might not like it, but if you lived your life by what other people “liked” you would never have a chance to be you.
You have the right to make it through this holiday season happy and healthy. Do what it takes to make sure you do.