[This post briefly mentions self-harm and suicide in no detail]
As wonderful as the festive season can be, it can also be a stressful, pressurised and destabilising time. For many people, this season can be incredibly difficult, whether that's due to financial pressures, loneliness, being judged by family or friends, grief, social anxiety or feeling overwhelmed the endless demands.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about why Christmas used to be very hard for me. In the post, I explained how flashbacks to previous festive seasons (when I was very suicidal and traumatised by inadequate mental health services) made me fear this time of year. I feel that I have come through the other side of this now thanks to DBT, but a small amount of anxiety still lingers.
This year I will be spending five days abroad with my boyfriend followed by six days at my family's house. I'm planning for the six days when I will be without my boyfriend and surrounded by immediate as well as extended family because this is where my triggers will arise.
Like many people with BPD, I find it hard to be away from a partner. The reason for this difficulty realties to the psychological concept of object permanence. In simple terms, object permanence means understanding that an object exists, even when it's out of sight. When my boyfriend is abroad, for example, sometimes I find it hard to feel that our relationship is still strong when I can't experience it directly. I have to remind myself repeatedly that out of sight is not the same as out of mind, as I sometimes struggle to remember that he is thinking of me unless he is texting or calling me.
I wanted to share what I will be doing to prevent meltdowns or lessen any distress during the festive season, in case you find these techniques useful...
1. Planning Distractions / Self-Soothe
The DBT skills 'distraction' and 'self-soothe' are going to be invaluable for me. I have downloaded some programmes onto my laptop so that when I'm on the train or in the airport, I can use the time to relax. I've got 'Reindeer Family and Me' downloaded off BBC Iplayer which should be cute! Other distractions I have prepared are a couple of video games, a book (Women, Girl, Other by Bernardine Evaristo) and an audiobook (Life On Air by David Attenborough).
2. coping at nighttime
The time of day when I'm most likely to be become distressed is nighttime. When I'm at my family's house, I will be sleeping in the same bedroom as the one in which I had severe depression for several months (and barely left the bed). I went through self-harm and feeling suicidal as a young person in this bedroom, so for a few years it was natural for flashbacks to arise when I returned.
Although I haven't had intense flashbacks there for a couple of years (thanks to effective therapy and feeling so loved, supported and happy in general now), mild ones could still happen. Therefore, I'm going to make sure I have some 'old favourites' next to my bed such as Harry Potter books that I can dip into at any moment and a stack of children's picture books too (I find children's books soothing!).
As I'm a lot more likely to become upset and get trapped in distressing thought patterns, I have a rule that I don't make any decisions or have any difficult conversations after 10pm. I have a notebook where a couple of bullet points if something is bothering me so I can address it in the morning when my mood is normally much better.
3. Having a Routine
When I get to my family's house, I will be sticking to a routine where I do several things each day including some exercise, some work on my book proposal and something relaxing, on top of the festivities and time with family. I don't want to reach a point where I am frazzled, socially exhausted and I feel my sense of normality has gone right out the window!
I will quite literally tick things off a list when I do them so that I have a better handle on my time. It can be very easy during the festive season to feel like the days are long and lose a lot of time to anxious rumination or even panic.
4. emotions are communication
I know that sometimes emotions seem like an unnecessary evil (!), but they are a vital tool for our development. Emotions alert us to what's going on in our environment and what we need to do (full post on this topic coming soon). It can be helpful to be able to recognise our emotions by noticing our body, our thoughts and how we feel. This is a skill in itself (more on this coming soon).
For example, if I know I'm feeling sad then I probably need to comfort myself. It might be something in the present that's making me feel sad or it could be something that reminded me of something sad from the past. Of course, there are plenty of unhelpful ways I could comfort myself, but it's about doing the helpful ways in balanced amounts. Examples could be watching my favourite TV show for an hour with a cup of tea, reminding myself of some small successes from the week or listening to a song.*
During the festive season, it can be really hard to respond to our emotions with everything else going on around us, so it can be useful to have some quick techniques up your sleeve. I find, "I'm just going to the shop because we need some more milk", "I am just going to take a shower for ten minutes" or "I'm going to have an early night after that busy day" quite useful phrases! Even if you don't shower, you could sit in the bathroom for five minutes and go on your fave app for some chill time.
5. Only follow helpful social media
Social media has been an incredibly powerful force for good in my life. Whilst some accounts help enormously, there are others (especially beauty/make-up posts on Instagram) that can cause me stress. It is very easy to have comparison anxiety with social media regarding someone's home, career, holiday, make-up, family or something else.
It is important to remember that a social media account is curated in much the same that an art gallery or a boutique is. People only display what they want others to see!
Feelings of inadequacy about how your life is compared to how others' lives appear to be can be more intense during the festive season as people share images of the 'perfect' dinner, the 'ideal' home, the 'flawless' make-up and the 'idyllic' holiday spot. I recommend following some validating people such as Body Posi Panda who recently shared some comforting posts about the festive season.
*NOTE: A challenge for people with BPD can be feeling deserving of comfort or worthy of experiencing pleasant feelings. Individuals with BPD can have a lot of emotional dysregulation (quickly changing up and down emotions) which can make it harder to sustain calm, pleasant feelings. People with BPD have often been through trauma which can create a feeling of being perpetually in danger, even after the threat has passed. It can be really hard to know how to experience a feeling of safety if you have never felt safe before.
This is why it's important to never judge someone for being stuck in a cycle of sadness or anxiety or tell someone to just 'stop feeling this way'. People who are struggling with their emotions need therapeutic techniques to help them feel better, not judgement from people who think they are being helpful!