Holidays and Schizophrenia: Strategies for Families Coping With Seasonal Triggers
For families, schizophrenia is a challenge at any time of year. The holidays increase stress and adversely impact mental health in many people. As a family, it is important to be prepared for any triggers that may worsen symptoms or cause new episodes of psychosis. Know your loved one’s stressors and triggers, prevent them as best you can, and take steps to manage symptoms and stress and minimize bad, destructive habits. Together you can get through the holidays healthier and happier.
Schizophrenia is a particularly difficult mental illness. If you have a family member living with it, each day presents unique challenges. When routines are upended and stress rises during the holidays, the challenges only grow.
For someone trying to manage schizophrenia episodes and symptoms, the holidays present so many triggers to thwart that control. Families can work together to limit them, manage and minimize symptoms, and keep everyone happy and healthy.
It’s all about coping in healthy, productive ways rather than simply reacting, ignoring, or brushing aside difficulties.
Focus on Stress Management
Stress often soars during the holidays and is particularly damaging to people with schizophrenia. Stress leads to the production of cortisol, a hormone. This, in turn, can trigger episodes of schizophrenia. Anything you can do to combat and prevent stress at this time of year will be helpful.
First, know what causes your loved one the most stress and avoid or minimize those factors. For instance, maybe they are most stressed out by spending time with extended family or being in large groups. If you have to say no to parties or if one person needs to stay home with them, you’ll be preventing one major trigger.
You won’t be able to avoid all stressors, of course, so also engage in positive and healthy stress management strategies. Get everyone involved to keep the entire family calm. Here are some things to try:
- Get outside for some exercise. Even a quick walk together can be a great way to relax.
- Take a yoga class.
- Meditate daily.
- Watch television or movies together in the evening.
- Try deep breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation for instant stress relief in difficult situations.
Plan Holiday Events Carefully and Prepare in Advance
Routines are helpful for people with schizophrenia. The holidays are anything but routine. When things change too much it may trigger symptoms. You may not be able to stick to the exact routine you normally have, but you can minimize disruptions and prepare your family member for them so that the impact is less.
Plan and schedule holiday activities and parties together so that everyone has input on what you’ll do and which events you’ll skip. Your loved one with schizophrenia will benefit from knowing what to expect in the days and weeks ahead. If any of the events present particular stressors or triggers, talk about them in advance and discuss how you’ll decide when it becomes necessary to leave early.
It’s a boozy time of year, and even if your family member with schizophrenia is old enough to drink, it’s best to avoid alcohol altogether. Alcohol only complicates the condition, especially if your loved one is using medications as part of treatment. Adding alcohol to a party or event that is already risky and stressful will only make the situation worse.
Using alcohol to cope, for anyone in the family, is tempting. To help everyone manage better and to support your loved one who can’t drink at all, consider a family-wide ban on drinking. Agree to abstain for the holidays, or at least to avoid drinking at all in front of the person with schizophrenia.
Schedule Some Family Therapy Sessions
Sometimes the stresses of the holidays necessitate a little extra support. Studies have found that family interventions and therapy improve conditions for patients and their families. The individuals with schizophrenia see improvement in symptoms and social functioning and also adhere to their medications more consistently with family therapy.
The caregivers benefit by experiencing a decreased perception of burden and increased self-efficacy. They also find that they are more socially supported with family interventions and that they have more knowledge and skills to help the member with schizophrenia. Those participating in therapy report overall greater satisfaction.
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Rely on a Support Network
Helping to care for someone with a serious mental illness takes a toll. Even at less hectic times of the year, having a family member with schizophrenia presents a lot of demands and challenges. Adding seasonal demands and stresses can quickly take any one individual to the edge. Rely on your support network of extended family, neighbors, and trusted friends to lighten your load.
This kind of support can take any number of forms, from making you something to take to a younger child’s school party to being there to listen to you talk about your challenges. Let other people you trust in, to help and support in any way they are willing and that you can accept.
Don’t Neglect the Rest of the Family
When one member of a family needs more support, it’s easy to lose sight of the needs of others. All members must take care of their own physical and mental health. Set boundaries, take time off, and manage your own health so you can provide the best care and support to your most vulnerable family member.
This may mean taking turns away from the house, enlisting other friends or family to help out, or just ensuring you have enough time for the things that improve your own wellness. Make time for exercise, sleep, and your favorite activities.
Keep up with or Increase Treatment
A survey from the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 64 percent of people with diagnosed mental illnesses report that the holidays make their condition worse. Don’t be surprised or feel bad if your loved one feels worse or has more symptoms right now. It’s not unusual.
But it does mean that you need to be extra vigilant about their treatment and management of the condition. Schizophrenia is chronic and lifelong, and there will be times when extra care is needed. If your family member is on medications, make sure they are keeping up with the right dosage and frequency. Maintain regular therapy sessions, or even add more if necessary.
In some cases, it may even be necessary to consider residential treatment. If your family can no longer function or manage a loved one’s illness, you need to turn to professional support. A residential stay for the holidays can provide a safe place for a difficult time.
If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with schizoaffective disorders, schizophrenia, and severe bipolar as well as co-occurring substance use disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.