By: Becca Owens

The holidays bring mixed emotions for many people. Although there’s excitement and wonder in the decorations, colder temperatures, parties and music, people also often feel anxiety over long to-do lists, high expectations and awkward run-ins with old acquaintances. For those who already struggle with bipolar disorder and mood instability, these holiday worries are only amplified by their diagnoses. Recognizing the potential for a flare-up and understanding your triggers are great first steps in protecting yourself against a relapse in your healing.

Why the Holidays Can Trigger Mental Health Struggles

Woman holding cup of coffeeThe holidays are a unique time of the year in which most of what we depend on in daily life is disrupted in some way — some for the better and some for the worse. Pinpointing some changes that the holidays bring and their effects on mental health can help protect you from a bipolar or mood instability episode. The following are common effects people feel based on holiday situations:

  • Overstimulation: Extra lights, parties, alcohol and music are all potentially harmful stimuli for those fighting bipolar disorder. Too much of these experiences can lead to much higher levels of stress and anxiety, triggering mood instability.
  • Higher expectations: Expectations come from all different sources. Many people have increased performance expectations at work during the holidays to meet year-end goals. Others may belong to a family that thrives on a plethora of traditions that they are expected to participate in throughout the season. On top of that, a great number of people have higher expectations for themselves during the holiday season. Expectations of creating the perfect cookie platter, the perfectly decorated tree or the cutest Christmas card can become burdens that are impossible to bear.
  • Disrupted routine: At the end of the year, the normal routine is often the first to go. People often face different work hours, eat at unusual times due to parties and gatherings and sleep in uncommon intervals.1 As a strong routine is key to pursuing stronger mental health, this lack of structure could easily trigger a bipolar event.

Most people will face all three of these risk factors — often simultaneously — at times throughout the holiday season. Although these changes may be unavoidable, they are predictable, and the best way to have a healthy and enjoyable time through the holidays is to be prepared in advance for how to respond and thrive.

Preparing to Thrive in the Holiday Season

As you become more aware each year of what to expect with your mental health, you can help yourself prepare in a holistic way. Because we are all holistic people, each category of our health affects the other categories. Recognizing that your mental health is also affected by your social, emotional and physical health can give you a great starting point for a bipolar-friendly holiday season. On her blog about bipolar disorder, Natasha Tracy lists specific ways to plan ahead to protect yourself from mood instability, which include the following:

  • Maintain a positive outlook: For those who struggle with anxiety and depression, memories of past years of bipolar episodes or painful memories associated with holidays will often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to Psych Central’s blog, consciously focusing on the pleasant changes that come with the holidays — like the newness of the coming year, connection with loved ones and old friends and the promise of longer days of sunlight ahead — can help you keep a positive state of mind with gratitude in your heart.2
  • Know your limits: On a good day, take time to reflect on the past year. Think through moments of thriving and episodes of mood instability. Once you identify the times of bipolar flux, try to list the factors leading to those times. If certain people, places or situations are common threads in your past times of instability, designate those factors as limits you must set for yourself. Recruit trusted allies as accountability partners to keep you within your limits, too.
  • Make healthy choices: Nutrition, exercise and sleep notoriously suffer in November and December. Preparing your body to thrive by eating a balanced diet, maintaining regular exercise and being dedicated to adequate sleep (possibly more during stressful weeks) will give you a boost toward success. If you take regular medication, it’s important to not miss a dose throughout the season. Avoiding triggers like alcohol and drugs should also be a high priority.
  • De-stress to be your best: Whatever activities are most relaxing and supportive for your strong mental health, choose a couple to treat yourself to as the holiday season approaches. If massages bring serenity to your life, schedule one around Thanksgiving and one the week of Christmas. It helps to physically prepare you and mentally gives you something to happily anticipate. Other ideas may be a trip to the movies, a coffee date with a life-giving friend or a long walk in a nice park. Taking time away from the chaos of the culture will give you a chance to decompress and prepare you for your next event or day.3

Help for the Holidays

The holidays can be a time of joy and reflection for a year well lived, even for those with bipolar disorder and mood instability. Thoughtful preparation is key for a happy holiday season. However, even with the best intentions, sometimes mood instability does happen. If you find yourself in the middle of a bipolar episode, call your doctor to discuss a stabilization plan.

We want to help you experience the most enjoyable holiday memories. If you would like more information on how to thrive with mood instability or bipolar disorder, please call our 24-hour, toll-free helpline anytime to speak with an admissions coordinator about your treatment options.


1 Tracy, Natasha. “Why Bipolar Mood Instability Happens During the Holidays.” HealthyPlace, December 20, 2016.

2 LaBouff, LaRae. “5 Positive Things about the Holidays and Bipolar Disorder.” Psych Central, December 22, 2015.

3 Tracy, Natasha. “Staying Sane During the Holidays with Bipolar Disorder – a Guide.” Bipolar Burble, December 17, 2012.