Experts at Bipolar UK warn that a combination of dark nights, dull weather, stresses of family, social anxiety, sleep disruption, changes in diet, and alcohol intake are key triggers for people living with bipolar this Christmas.
Bipolar UK is the only national charity dedicated to supporting people affected by bipolar.
At least one million people in the UK have bipolar. That is 1 in 50 people.
Bipolar is therefore one of the UK’s most common long-term conditions, with twice as many people living with bipolar as dementia and schizophrenia.
According to a poll of 2000 people by the Skipton Building Society, 3 in 10 Britons claim their mental health takes a complete “nosedive” over the Christmas period, with 31% already struggling with sleepless nights as they worry about the Christmas period.
Speaking about potential festive triggers, CEO of Bipolar UK, Simon Kitchen, said: “Christmas can cause a significant change to our daily routine and diet, but more than that, there are the added pressures of creating a perfect Christmas, gift buying, and of course the typical stresses of family gatherings.
“This can all have an impact on our levels of anxiety and disrupt our sleep. 80% of our community say that sleep deprivation has been a trigger for their bipolar.”
As we approach Christmas, Rosie Phillips, Deputy CEO of Bipolar UK, who has lived experience with bipolar, shares her top advice on managing symptoms and triggers over the Christmas period:
Christmas can be overwhelming enough and potentially even more stressful if you don’t have a plan. It is important to not schedule every single second of the day and work in some alone time.
Rosie said, “Especially since the pandemic, socialising with larger groups can sometimes make people with bipolar feel anxious, and it can all be quite challenging. Planning ahead can relieve the pressure and intensity in those situations.”
Christmas is also a time to be enjoyed. Rosie added, “It’s important for me to understand what enables me to take joy from Christmas. Yes, I spend it with family, but if I need to take myself away for some quiet time, I find the space to do so.
Getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night is one of the top protective factors in managing bipolar.
Good sleep practices include getting up at the same time every day, getting a dose of morning light where possible, avoiding stimulants and activities that delay getting to sleep and disrupt sleep quality, such as alcohol and caffeine, and avoiding using electronic devices before bed.
Budgeting and spending
With ads on TV and sales through December, the overwhelming sentiment in the build-up to Christmas is about gifting, giving, and excess.
It’s easy to get carried away and feel the pressure to give, which for someone with bipolar disorder can lead to a tendency to overspend or “overgift”.
“Remember, you can give smaller or homemade gifts,” added Rosie. “It’s more about the thought than the cost.
“It is also more important for people living with bipolar disorder to set and keep to a budget. Think about how much you can afford to spend over Christmas and plan for that.”
It can also help to plan and set a budget as a family and get everyone’s input before you go shopping.
Knowing yourself and your triggers is important. For example, if you are prone to overspending, then it’s more important to plan financially. Or if you struggle with sleep, then plan a calm, relaxing end to the day.
Weather and light
The shorter days and inclement and unpredictable weather can have an impact on mental health and potentially trigger a relapse. SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, is widely regarded as being on the bipolar spectrum.
“In winter, we can feel penned in with the reduced daylight hours. Sometimes you can leave in the dark and come home in the dark,” said Rosie.
When planning your time in the lead-up to Christmas, make it a priority to spend time in the daylight. Maybe go for a lunchtime walk or move your work desk to a window.
Often, we end up travelling around Christmas. That may be a short trip to see family, or across time zones internationally.
“Whenever you travel, your sleep will be disrupted,” said Rosie. “It might be lighter or darker; noisier or quieter; or just feel different. Whatever it is, often you don’t sleep well away from home.
“I always find routine important. You need to find out what works for you. However, I find adopting a flexible routine is better for me than sticking to an exact, pre-arranged time.”
Support and understanding
Even with close family, the understanding of bipolar disorder can vary. They may not understand your triggers or coping strategies. Rosie warns, “Don’t expect people to always fully understand what you’re going through.”
Communicate with friends and family about becoming overwhelmed. Communication is key. Avoiding those conversations can make it worse, although it’s important to find the right time when people are more likely to feel relaxed rather than rush off somewhere or dish up dinner.
Changes in diet, or increases in alcohol consumption or recreational drug use over the Christmas season, can be a trigger for bipolar.
Consider the risk factors and how they will impact your experience as part of your planning.
“Being open and honest with yourself and the people around you can be key,” added Rosie. “You can also adjust your social plans to remove yourself from situations that might be likely to encourage you to overindulge.”
A time to indulge
Remember, the Christmas period is a time of celebration and to be enjoyed. Have a plan, but if you don’t 100% stick to it, that’s OK too.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” concluded Rosie. “Understand that most of us overindulge a little in December and then get back on track after Christmas.
“The important thing is to enjoy yourself and, at the same time, to look after your physical, mental, and financial health.”
Bipolar UK has a variety of resources to support people living with bipolar and their loved ones, helping them to recognise the risks and manage their condition so they can enjoy longer periods of stability.