How to Cope With Mental Illness During the Holidays


Amy Pilkington (shown with her husband) has had more than her share of holiday crises.

January and February have always been the hardest time of the year for me to manage my symptoms, which can range from severe depression to mania. One year was particularly difficult, however. My father passed away on New Year’s Day in 2008.

He was very ill throughout the holidays and we all knew his death was imminent. As the eldest child, I took on all the funeral planning and felt I had to be the rock for everyone else. I completely ignored my own needs because I thought I had to be strong for the rest of the family.

It all blew up in my face. By mid-January, I was having bouts of psychosis that included hearing my father’s voice urging me to commit suicide. I hadn’t allowed myself to grieve for him, and I was also overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the holidays. While trying to be there for others, I had inadvertently set myself up for disaster.

Since then, the holiday season tends to make me anxious. I’m working on putting myself first, but I have a habit of doing the exact opposite—and it’s a habit that’s proving hard to break.

I’ve learned that the crowds, family functions, and last-minute shopping can spell trouble, but I also know there are steps I can take to reduce anxiety and keep my sanity in the midst of all the madness.

I’ve found the most important thing is to plan ahead. Regardless of how hard you try to avoid it, you will inevitably be faced with stressful situations. Try these six strategies to get through the holidays in one piece.

1. Know your limits.
My husband has a very large family. His father had more than 10 siblings, and more than 100 people attend the family Christmas celebration each year. There are so many of them that I still can’t keep count.

Being in the middle of that many people is way too much for me to deal with. I can handle a dozen relatives at a time for a short while, but even the thought of being in a crowd of 100 makes me want to scream. I don’t like crowds and I can take only so much before I start to crack.

A few years ago I decided that I’d no longer attend the big celebration, and I usually opt for the smaller gatherings instead. Large get-togethers are sometimes unavoidable during the holidays, however, and I’ve been forced to find ways to deal with the fear and anxiety they provoke. During family functions, it’s not unusual to see me heading for the door. Sometimes it helps to find a quiet spot outside and spend a few minutes away from the crowds. Enjoying a little quiet time often allows me to get through the day without a manic meltdown.

Leaving a party altogether is a last resort, but there are times when my efforts to cope with the stress just don’t help. When you go to a holiday gathering, you should always have an exit strategy. Be prepared with an excuse in case you need to make a hasty exit. Making up excuses isn’t really possible once I’m beyond the point of rational thinking, so having an excuse before I reach that point comes in handy. Sometimes just knowing that you have a way out of a situation before it turns bad can help lessen your anxiety.

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