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Tips for managing a mood disorder this holiday season

​Pop culture likes to tell us this is the most wonderful time of year, but for many of us, the winter holidays are the most stressful time of year.
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​Increased demands at work, challening family dymanics, and high expectations for hosting loved ones and giving expensive gifts can make it difficult to cope.

It’s especially challenging for anyone with a mood disorder such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, explains Dr. Heather Fulton, a psychologist at the Burnaby Centre for Mental Health and Addiction. 

“During this time of heightened stress, it can be tempting to use less-than-healthy coping strategies. So it’s important to recognize this is a risky time of year for your mental health and focus on healthy ways to manage the challenges you’re facing.” 

If you’ve found your stress level rising or mood dropping as the holidays approach, here’s a handful of tips to help you manage. 

1. Get plenty of sleep, drink lots of water and exercise 

They may sound like small things, but lack of sleep, hydration, and exercise can have big consequences. They’re also the things we’re most likely to skimp on or neglect during times of stress, which will only make it harder to cope. 

“Cutting back on sleep has direct impact on your ability to think flexibly and deal with emotional challenges, so you may find yourself snapping at others more,” says Dr. Fulton. 

Alcohol is a depressant, and caffeine can exacerbate anxiety, so try to avoid these and drink lots of water instead. Exercise, meanwhile, has been found to reduce depression, anxiety and stress. 

2. Cut yourself some slack and keep things in perspective 

Be aware of how you’re speaking to yourself. Try to recognize the “I shoulds” and replace them with “I’d prefers” instead. 

“Continually telling yourself what you should do, or what should be done, can make you feel beaten down, mandated or out of control,” explains Dr. Fulton. “You may also want to watch out for ‘catastrophizing.’ This means thinking the worst will happen. For example, you might think if you don’t get the perfect present for your friend, they’ll think you don’t care about them. Instead, keep things in perspective: What’s the worst thing that really happen? What’s the best thing that can happen? What’s most realistic?” 

3. Make goals for your holiday plans  

Goals can help you prioritize what’s most important and avoid feeling overwhelmed or overworked, suggests Dr. Fulton. “But keep them flexible and in line with your goals and values—it’s not about being perfect. Ask yourself what you really want to achieve with your holiday plans and activities.” 

For example, if your goal is to spend time with your children or grandchildren and share some family traditions with them, remember holidays and traditions change and grow over time. Choose those that are key to hold onto, but be open to creating new ones too.

4. Set boundaries for yourself (and others) 

Conflict (and potential conflict) is a major source of stress during the holidays. One of the simplest ways to avoid conflict is to set a time limit on certain social events and be clear about those limits: “Thank you so much for inviting us, but we can only stay for two hours.” 

In some cases, says Dr. Fulton, simply say you cannot attend. “Remember that whenever you say yes to one thing, you are saying no to something else, such as some needed relaxation time or exercise or time just with your immediate family.”

5. Remember you own only 50 per cent of every conflict. 

A holiday party or dinner may not be the best time to work out a longstanding conflict with a loved one, so perhaps delay loaded conversations like that for another time. Remember that the other person is also likely dealing with holiday stress, blues and frustration as well.

Dr. Fulton’s advice is simple: “Try to ensure your 50 per cent of the conversation is pleasant and kind, even if the other 50 per cent is perhaps not as kind as you might like. With disagreements, focus instead on what you and your family have in common. Express gratitude and appreciation. Give thanks.” 

6. Allow yourself to mourn or feel sad 

One of the biggest sources of sadness this time of year is the loss of loved ones, including those we’re separated from. Give yourself permission to mourn or feel sad about their absence. 

“It’s okay to mourn their loss and feel sad about that,” explains Dr. Fulton. “Don’t criticize yourself for missing that person and feeling sad. At the same time don’t feel guilty if you do have moments of joy. Those emotions are all okay and to be expected. There are no ‘shoulds’ in grief.”

Often people find it helpful to have a special tradition or way to recognize the absence of a loved one, such as a special picture or candle. 

7. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you need it 

Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor or a mental-health professional.  

BC Mental Health & Substance Use Services
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