For many people, the holiday season is one of fun, family and friends as they engage in the festivities and parties, but this isn’t the case for everyone. If you have been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder — or suspect that you might be dealing with it — the holidays can end up being a time of feeling overwhelmed and out of control. The habits and rituals that go along with OCD and the holidays don’t always mix well, and that can leave you feeling stressed and even disappointed if the reality of this season doesn’t live up to your expectations.
No matter what your family traditions involve, whether it’s holiday cookie swaps, Christmas Eve church services or just having to travel to (or host) family, this season is full of stresses and triggers that can make it difficult for those with OCD to manage. Even if you personally don’t celebrate a lot, the expectations from work colleagues or friends can add to the pressure. This is true for those who aren’t dealing with a mental health issue but even more so for those struggling with managing their OCD. Here’s a look at how OCD can impact the holidays and some tips for how to manage your mental health during this trying time.
Understanding Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
It’s not uncommon to hear someone call themselves or someone else “OCD” because they like things to be neat or wash their hands more frequently than someone else. But the truth is that obsessive compulsive disorder is much more complicated than what its portrayal in pop culture, such as on shows like Monk and The Big Bang Theory, would have everyone believe.
OCD is not just being a “neat freak” or liking things a certain way, and it’s important for those who suffer from it or suspect they may have OCD to understand that it’s not something that can be removed — or really even managed — by trying to “relax” or “get over” things. OCD is a real behavioral disorder that can have a serious impact on your life, but it is something that can be improved with the proper treatment plan.
OCD and the Holidays
If you think that you or someone you know may be dealing with undiagnosed OCD or you just want to be aware of how OCD can manifest during the holidays, here are some examples of behaviors to be on the lookout for:
- Excessive handwashing. One of the most recognized rituals associated with OCD, increased handwashing may be one of the first signs of an OCD flare-up. The holidays do align with flu season, so a bit of extra handwashing can be a good idea. But if you’re washing your hands to the point that they are raw, cracked or bleeding or you notice that a loved one is spending an excessive amount of time in the bathroom showering or handwashing, this can be an issue.
- An increase in reassurance-seeking behaviors. Those with OCD often ask a lot of what-if questions and need reassurance that everything is going to be okay. If you struggle with anxiety as part of your symptoms, you may notice this increase with the stress and pressures of the holidays.
- Becoming more reclusive. Withdrawing can be a coping mechanism for those who have OCD. By staying in their own environments, they can be in more control, and therefore, triggers are less likely.
While it’s important to recognize the serious impact the holidays can have on OCD, it’s also crucial to remember that OCD doesn’t have to mean missing out or living in a constant state of anxiety during this time. By understanding how OCD manifests itself in your case and learning to recognize and deal with your triggers proactively, you can increase the chances of staying on a successful path. Here are three tips on managing OCD during the holidays.
1. Set Realistic Expectations
When the holidays come around, it can feel like everyone wants or needs something, and the pressures you would normally be able to say no to easily become more difficult to deal with because everything is hedged in “Oh come on, it’s the holidays!”
But it’s important to be honest with yourself about what you need for your own mental health and to set realistic expectations for what you can do and what you expect from others. If this means attending only two holiday parties out of six or skipping your turn to host the ugly sweater party, that’s fine.
2. Create and Uphold Boundaries
Boundaries are incredibly important when it comes to personal relationships, and the holidays can be a great time to practice setting and then sticking to your personal boundaries. If you know that visiting a certain relative’s home triggers OCD behaviors, explain that you’re not going to be able to come over (remember that you don’t have to justify your boundaries or explain your reasoning) but that you could meet for coffee at a cafe or have them come over to your house.
It’s very common for people to push back on boundaries, especially during the holidays when it can seem like real life is suspended. Sticking to what you’ve laid out with a firm “No, that doesn’t work for me” or “No, I won’t do that” works well.
3. Be Kind to Yourself
Understand that no one is perfect and that you may end up not being able to attend every party you said yes to when it comes down to it. It’s easy to over commit on what you think you can handle before the holidays, and it’s important to be able to adjust your expectations of yourself as the weeks progress. And if you do end up experiencing a situation where OCD affects your holidays in a negative way, remember that you have OCD but you are not OCD. The disorder may affect how you are able to handle certain situations, but it is not your identity, and as long as you are able to do what you can to protect your mental health and deal with the stresses of the holiday season, that’s more than enough.
If you have already been diagnosed with OCD, talking to your mental health team about how you can manage the disorder going into the holidays can be a great first step. You already have some tools and strategies, and they can help you adjust those for the festive season. However, if you think you might have OCD but haven’t been formally diagnosed, it’s worth talking to someone to find out how treatment can help. Contact FHE Health to learn more about our treatment programs for obsessive compulsive disorder.