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Navigating Communication During the Holidays

By: Courtney Davey, MA, LMFT

The holidays are a wonderful time: family, friends, feelings of good will etc. However, these additions to your schedule also can create high levels of stress. Holiday movies are notorious for making gags out of the difficulties with family as it concentrates on our interactions with them. As we go through the holiday season, living with Bipolar Disorder can add additional stresses to interacting with family. Keep these tips in mind for successfully managing family throughout this time.

Self Care-Always: Always, always utilize self care. If you are traveling home and staying with family, bring something with you that you use, whether it’s your journal for daily writing, a book to take some time away, your headphones for music or guided meditations or a calming object. Physical space can be tight, and it is important that you create some emotional space for if you become stressed.

Make a plan: If there are certain people who are triggering for you that you will be interacting with or certain topics that may become upsetting, set up a plan for how you intend to interact with it beforehand. That could be removing yourself from a conversation that is more than you can handle in that moment (called therapeutic elopement) is both protecting your own emotional boundaries and the boundaries of the others you interact with. If there is a history of high-emotion responses to situations, this is a safe alternative to avoid high levels of distress and any additional negative comments. Decide what you will say if you do separate yourself (e.g. “I’m doing better, and would rather not discuss that. Excuse me”), or what to say to handle a conversation that you are interested in staying in by not allowing dwelling (e.g. “I’m doing better, and I know that I wasn’t at that time. I’m taking better care of myself and work every day to continually improve my progress. How are you doing with X?”)

Make mindful choices: The holidays may not be the best time to have huge discussions around previous behaviors and traumas due to the additional stress, so resist the urge to drag out or fixate on old wounds. Judgments and stigma exist regardless of how well you may manage your symptoms, and it can be tempting in a room full of those who have hurt you to air it out. Ensure that you have these conversations with people one on one at a different time, which will hopefully reduce the level of stress that occurs at future family gatherings. Be aware of the choices that you make around your interactions and identify what pieces you contribute to negative interactions, should they occur.

Be aware of self: Alongside judgment and stigma, family are often those who know your behavioral patterns best. If someone pulls you aside to discuss concern, listen and absorb with an open mind. It can be very difficult to not feel defensive, but assess whether that person is coming from a place of concern or a place of judgment. React accordingly, and remember that they may be picking up on symptoms that you have not noticed or that has been exacerbated by the stress of the holiday.

Have an outside support person: Pick your person who is not involved in your plans for the holidays who is emotionally supportive throughout your life. Ask them to be a sounding board for when you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed or possibly hurt by the interactions that you experience. Be willing to hear their validation, their advice, and their observations on your piece of the interaction.

The holidays can be very enjoyable, and you may not need any of this advice. However, utilize these to successfully navigate and survive the stresses of family during holiday time while living with Bipolar Disorder.

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