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mental health mondays :: your holiday primer

most of us have heard that there's a bump in the number of suicides every year, as the good cheer of others makes depressed people sink even further. it's not actually true, but it does sound pretty believable, doesn't it? after all, things are rough enough when you're dealing with mental health issues, let alone when the entire world seems to be trying to force you to smile and be "merry". it's easy to believe that the added pressure and the projected happiness of others is enough to nudge someone over the edge.

but the fact is, even if people aren't throwing themselves off bridges like a bunch of lemmings [also a myth, by the way], the holidays can be a pretty stressful time. for my american readers, that stress started a few weeks ago, with thanksgiving, but for the rest of us, it's just starting to hit fever pitch now. i may not be able to help you with your last minute shopping, but i have come up with a list of tips that might help keep you from losing your cool and contributing to the annual holiday rise in crime, which is real.

  1. drugs are important :: things can get very busy around the holidays. offices have irregular hours. you may have irregular hours. make sure that you stock up early on whatever medicines you need to get you through to the new year. while pharmacists generally frown on renewing prescriptions early, they're more likely to be understanding around this time of year. this is absolutely not the time to reduce, skip or change your medication. if you're in the process of doing one of these things, talk to your doctor about possibly putting that on hold until things normalize. [if you are looking to reduce or stop your medications, you might want to have a look here for some extra tips.]
  2. do as much and as little as you can :: it might be tempting to crawl in bed and hide for a month, but that's not like you to leave you feeling any better. on the other hand, dealing with large numbers of unfamiliar family members and friends and coworkers and... well, being around lots of people might not be advisable either. so pace yourself. let those close to you know your limitations and why you might not want to participate in every holiday activity. if you don't feel comfortable with coworkers, you can politely back out of the office party. if you want to participate, but think you might feel overwhelmed, have an early exit strategy.
  3. sleep it off :: don't think sleep is a mental health issue? it absolutely is. so make sure that you get the rest you need. even if you can't sleep [and that in itself is a problem you should address], make sure you at least take the time to rest in a place that's dark and quiet and where you're not going to be interrupted.
  4. the big d :: you can find more information in this post, but here's the bottom line: there are lots of good reasons to take vitamin d and while the science on its efficacy against seasonal affective disorder might be inconclusive, there's enough evidence that it might help to make it worth a try. the sun is our major source of vitamin d and there's no getting around the fact that we get precious little of it at this time of year. it will likely do you good on some level and it's not going to harm you. 
  5. and while we're talking about natural highs :: consider adding a good quality omega-3 supplement or increasing your intake of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids. you can read more about them here. [note :: omega-3 means omega-3, not 6 and not 9. north americans normally get those in more than sufficient quantities already.]
  6. watch the holiday cheer :: lots of people will tell you that you shouldn't touch alcohol or illicit drugs if you're on any kind of psychiatric medication. i am not one of those people. [i do, however, strongly suggest you read  up on any possible interactions before indulging and making an informed decision.] but the fact is that whether you are or aren't on medication, alcohol is a depressant. if you're already feeling depressed, alcohol will only pull you further down.
  7. plan for the last minute :: if you've already completed all your shopping, you have one less thing to stress about. however, if you've somehow managed, like many, many others to leave it until next week, you can still reduce your anxiety and your time fighting the throngs. take a few quiet moments to think of things you've heard people close to you mention that they planned to get, or that they admired when other people got them... you get the idea. then go online and find out where to get them. if you can order them in time, great, but if not, find out what local stores sell what you need. call and confirm they're in stock and find out the best map that will allow you to get everything you need in the fastest, most efficient way possible.
  8. be nontraditional :: sometimes, family traditions that have formed around the holidays are a comfort for people with mental disorders. they provide a sense of calmness and security that can relieve stress. for others... not so much. if there are traditions that your family practices that are unduly stressful for you, talk to them about it in advance. see if there's some change that could be made to the plan [keeping in mind that others have a right to enjoy their holidays too]. it's all well and good to have established traditions, but it's also fun to find new ones. you might also want to have a think about why certain holiday activities are so stressful for you and see if you can link it to other things that cause you stress. even better, talk to your therapist or doctor about it. it's good to avoid causes of stress when you can, but it's even better to be able to stop them from causing stress at all.
i don't pretend that this is a comprehensive list, but i think it's a starting point. the idea that we make ourselves suffer through something that is meant to give us a break from the stresses of the rest of the year and remind us of how lucky we are to have our loved ones in our life is quite sad. and none of us needs anything to make us more sad at this time of year.

sit back, relax, feel the world slow down around you. no lives are at stake. take a few moments to think about what you need and what you can offer. happy holidays need not be an irritating, chipper slogan. it can be a statement of fact.

p.s. :: if you have a friend or family member who is suffering from mental illness, or if you think you might face [well-meaning but possibly infuriating] questions from your loved ones about your own struggles, you might want to look at this handy list of what to say and what not to say to people with mental disorders.

p.p.s. :: à propos of the image above and as an inveterate hater of christmas movies, i do in all seriousness recommend watching grumpy cat's "worst christmas ever".  its total self-awareness makes it charming where it should be corny. for the season, i also recommend "die hard" [i'm a purist and go only for the original, but dom also likes the second one], "blackadder's christmas carol" and the "holy" episode of bottom. i've also been known to watch old religious epics [ceci b. demille is the man] and add audience participation à la "rocky horror picture show", but your enjoyment of this will depend on your own spiritual outlook and your comfort level with going to hell if it turns out you guessed wrong.

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