Times have been tough. But so are we. The end-of-year holidays can be difficult any year, and, this time around, they pose new challenges to our mood and well-being. Let’s not forget: Living with bipolar has taught us how to navigate through uncertainty. Here are the coping skills I’ve been relying on to remain stable and hopeful as we approach the upcoming season.
Although our collective sense of time has been affected by the global health crisis and its disruptions to our lives—our routines, stress, workloads, and ability to socialize in person—it’s clear that the holiday season is upon us. This time of year, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, can be tough and painful on their own. And this time around, we have new and complicated stressors to contend with. In my experience, this can result in our thoughts and moods starting to spiral. That’s why I’ve combed through my coping strategies and gathered up those that I find to be most effective. I’m sharing them with the hope that we can get through the holiday season with a stable mood and a more positive, self-affirming mindset.
#1 Accept That This Season Won’t Be All Holly Jolly
Once I understood just how weird and messed up this all is, I realized something: this is not “the new normal”—because it’s not normal. That applies to the holidays, too. What’s been difficult for me lately is knowing I’ll miss many family members and friends, especially those I’m used to sharing holiday meals with and exchanging gifts with. What’s really been getting to me is the disappointment. The holidays are supposed to look like a Norman Rockwell painting. This year feels more like it was painted by Edward Hopper. But now that I’ve accepted the reality of our circumstances, I’m not feeling so let-down. I’ll be doing something different this year … and that’s okay. I will make it through.
#2 Nix “Never,” “Always,” & Negative Thought Loops
I often struggle with negative, intrusive thoughts, and all-or-nothing thinking. The public health crisis and the impending holiday season have been exacerbating this tendency. I kept finding myself catastrophizing and getting stuck in negative thought loops, with the words “always” and “never” firmly cemented in my internal vocabulary. Eventually, it got to the point that I remembered when I was first diagnosed with bipolar and I had convinced myself I would “never” find relief. I was wrong, of course. But, at the time, those were my thoughts and I believed them. Now I know that this kind of distorted thinking is untrustworthy, incorrect, and downright dangerous. That’s why I pause when I catch myself thinking “always” or “never,” and I remind myself …
#3 Don’t Believe Everything You Think
My brain is wired to see the world in terms of absolutes. In my manic episodes, I become a fortune teller, confident that I know exactly what the future holds. It’s always bright, perfect, and exactly as I want it to look. I’ve also had severe depressive episodes that, at the time, felt endless. I’ve almost drowned in thoughts like “I’ll always feel this way.” Dangerous thoughts can lead to dangerous actions, so I’ve trained myself to remember that just because I think something, that doesn’t mean it’s true. By learning to challenge the messages in my head, I can prevent the snowball effect of negativity and rumination that can lead to catastrophe.
#4 Make a Mantra: “This Will Pass.”
I recently wrote about managing my mental health during these anxious times. The most useful tool I’ve found for weathering this crisis has been reminding myself that this is temporary. Some days, I must constantly repeat the mantra, “This will pass”—even when it feels like it will go on forever. This coping strategy has brought my stress levels way down. If the little voice in my head tells me this crisis will never end, I calmly quiet it down by saying (out loud, if necessary), “Things will get better. This too shall pass.”
#5 Trust That This Isn’t What Future Holidays Will Always Look Like
I often mark events by contemplating what I was doing the previous year. On my birthday, I reflect on my previous birthday. I do the same thing with the holidays. I look back on where I was, who I was with, and reminisce (or cringe, depending on the year). This holiday season looks nothing like last year, or any before that. I dreaded facing the holidays this season because everything felt so grim, so hopeless, and so permanent. But by next year, we will have come so far. The brutality of this especially painful season will be behind us. Even if we face a similar challenge in the future, we will be better prepared for it than we were this time around, simply because we lived through it. Now that I’m cognizant of just how out of the ordinary our current situation is, I have hope for future holidays.
#6 Avoid Quick Fixes & Fortune-Telling
When the Marie Kondo “craze” hit Netflix with Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, I gobbled up every episode in a few binge-watching sessions. I was mesmerized by the idea that I could achieve a sense of calm in my life by getting rid of material possessions I no longer needed.
I promptly emptied out my kitchen cabinets, my dresser drawers, and my bathroom sink, getting rid of anything and everything I just knew in my gut I’d never need again. I thought could predict the future, and it would never change. I was manic.
Looking at my newly sparse surroundings, I did feel an immediate sense of relief. Later, though, I panicked. I’d thrown out one of two frying pans I owned, figuring one was enough. Then I found myself floundering while cooking.
I realized, too late, that my bipolar mind had tricked me, and I had fallen for it. This season, I’m keeping an eye on my mood—and happily discarding that crystal ball.
#7 Remember the Power of (Negative & Positive) Visualization
In these uncertain times, I’ve pictured myself stuck inside my house for years, or worse. I’ve imagined perpetually empty grocery-store shelves, permanently closed businesses, and never-ending Zoom chats. But those visions in my head aren’t real. Yes, things are tough at the moment, for everyone. But now that I know my mind plays tricks on me, I can tell myself (repeatedly, if necessary): My thoughts are just that: thoughts. They’re not absolute truths, and they’re not future predictions.
Instead, I can choose to visualize what life will be like on the other side of this season. I can think about the positives—imagine how good it will feel to embrace my loved ones again, without worry. I can picture the joys that are yet to come. And I can remove myself from the rut of negativity.
#8 Create New Holiday Traditions
There’s something to be said for breaking routine. Just because I’m used to celebrating the holidays in a certain way, that doesn’t mean I have to this year. I’ve always loved shopping in-person for the perfect gift for everyone on my list. But now I’ve had to scale down due to financial struggles. The old proverb is true: necessity is the mother of invention. I’ve had more time at home, and I’ve needed something to keep myself busy. This year I’m making thoughtful, creative presents instead. It’s so calming to knit scarves for loved ones, I want to continue devising homemade gifts in the future. I’ve inadvertently created my own new tradition that keeps my hands and my overactive mind busy—and results in special, unique holiday gifts.
#9 Balance Mood-Stabilizing Routine with Variety, the Spice of Life
In the early 2000s, I had a stable but monotonous job. Every day was the same, day in and day out. Each week, I would finish all of my tasks by Tuesday afternoon. I craved mental challenges, of which I had few. I sat at my desk, trying to think of projects to alleviate my boredom. After six years, I left. I knew I’d never feel truly fulfilled unless I could be creative. I went back to school, got another degree (this time in fine arts), and became a graphic designer. I got a job on a movie set only a year after leaving my corporate grind, and I’ve been happily employed in the film industry for over 15 years.
Aside from my cherished freedom to be creative, one of the best things about my career is being a freelancer. Each job is different: I have new bosses and coworkers on each show. I design unique graphics for every set. And no two days are the same. Part of why I’m so happy in this role is precisely because everything about my day-to-day work is temporary. I can handle almost anything—no matter how bad it is—when I can see light at the end of the tunnel.
#10 Find Hope and Peace in Impermanence
The weather, the stock market, and even allergies can change, so this worldwide disruption of our lives will change, too. As will the holiday blues. There is a bright light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s filled with possibilities.
In some ways, life might go back to how it was before. There will be more holidays to celebrate, and new lessons learned. Who knows? Things could even end up better. Whether because we had more time or because we were driven to come to terms with hard realities, many of us have begun to consider our personal values, looking inside ourselves and asking questions about what we previously accepted as “normal”:
The health crisis is shining a bright light on class inequality—including access to necessities and medical care—and highlighting which jobs are “essential” and who among us must take on those duties. Now that more people are aware of what needs to change, there is hope for the future.
This year, we lost a great man: civil rights icon John Lewis. But we’ve also seen long-overdue protests and civic engagement from people who used to sit on the sidelines. Lewis’s famous catchphrase, “Get in good trouble,” has become his enduring legacy.
As we collectively discovered flaws in our healthcare system, government officials started addressing them in new, better ways.
Recent vaccine news has focused on who will receive it first, and how much it will cost. The fact that more people are asking these kinds of questions for the first time means our society is heading toward a place of greater equality.
Because I know this season, these struggles, and this crisis are temporary, I can sleep at night, and I can face another day. May you do the same, and have a better, more hopeful—possibly even happy—holiday season!
Carrie Cantwell is an Emmy-nominated film industry graphic designer with bipolar disorder. She grew up with a dad who had bipolar and whom she lost to suicide. She has written a book entitled Daddy Issues: A Bipolar Memoir, about how accepting her diagnosis taught her to forgive her dad and herself. Her blog is Darkness & Light.
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