Photo by Adonyi Gábor from Pexels
I can’t say there’s one reason the holidays are more difficult than other holidays or times of the year. But they are. And while the holidays are stressful for everyone, they are even more difficult for the neurodivergent.
I see countless posts on social media from all types of neurodivergent people discussing how hard the holidays are. How some choose not to participate. How others create a plan for how to navigate them. How all of us find it more difficult than other times of the year.
Here are some of the reasons I find the holidays difficult:
Perhaps it’s because there are so many holidays so close together, giving me sometimes not even a full week to recover from one to the other. I get rundown. Sick. Burnt out.
Having to have everything ready for them is often more than I can handle. The additional shopping required and gifts to consider. The food to prepare. The planning and effort they require is added to my normal routine. Making me feel overwhelmed. Dizzy. Disoriented. Off. Sucking my energy well dry.
The days are different than other days during the year, and thus, have their own set of expectations. And there is an expectation to enjoy the holidays even if I try really hard not to have the expectation that I will.
I experience too many highs and lows and have a hard time staying regulated.
My typical routine changes and it is difficult to establish a temporary routine because I am working with other people’s schedules. And with odd times of the day. And with change that is, generally, very difficult in and of itself.
They allow for too much downtime. Which I don’t know how to fill when I’m not in a routine. Or when my temporary routine constantly changes.
My diet is different because, even if I try to stick to what I know I should eat, there are too many temptations and food is comforting. And it’s social. Not eating or bringing my own food sometimes causes more stress than it’s worth. And I always consume alcohol even if I go in thinking I won’t need to. Because it helps me feel less triggered. Because it helps me cope.
Consuming anything while my processing is stressful causes me to have indigestion. Which most people experience, but mine also causes my sensory issues to increase. I can’t stand the psychical or mental discomfort. It makes my thinking foggy, making it even harder to process my thoughts and to interact. And then I have gut health issues in the days that follow.
The amount of interacting required drains me. There is someone to talk to at every turn. Kids running in all directions. Sometimes only the bathroom to hide in. If it’s available and odor free.
There are additional sensory triggers. Christmas music playing in the background. The random, overwhelming sounds of toys. Kids screeching or crying. Paper unwrapping. Adults laughing. Smells of meat and candles combining in the air. People wanting to hug or accidentally bumping into me when they pass by.
Time goes too fast and when it’s over, I’m usually so exhausted that I can’t even rest. Because my body and my mind are catching up. So I’m suspended somewhere in the middle. Frozen in time. Between the chaos and the calm. Often disconnected from my body and trying to get back in.
The next day, I have to come down from my social hangover. And sometimes, be ready to do it all over again. Two things that do not go together. And shouldn’t have to.
Every year, I tell myself it’s going to be different. I will enjoy myself. I will not have too many expectations. I will not have a meltdown. I will not get burnt out. And every year, something happens causing all of those things to occur.
Making me feel like a failure. Making me believe that, even with my sensory diet and all the work I put into each day to make it safe and enjoyable, all will come crashing down. And for some reason, come crashing down harder because it is the holidays.
But I try again every year. And I try to have new strategies. A new plan of attack. Here's my plan this year:
Aim to have everything done before each holiday day. So no preparation has to take place the morning of. Including having what I will wear ready and what I will bring packed.
Exercise before I go. To get my vestibular, proprioceptive and interoceptive senses ready.
Take all of my supplements and medications before I go instead of thinking I’ll remember while there. Because I always forget.
Take sensory breaks while I’m there. Go into another room, close the door, take deep breaths, smell my lavender essential oil, listen to calming music.
Make sure to drink at least 64 ounces of water.
Consume mindfully. Plan what I will eat and drink ahead of time and don’t go over. (Writing down what I will eat ahead of time helps with this.)
Limit caffeine, alcohol and sugar consumption.
Don’t feel pressured to fully engage in conversation with every person who wishes to engage. I can reply politely and conserve my energy.
Don’t expend more energy than necessary on any one task. Try to pace myself.
Remember this is a time of year to be especially thankful, humble and loving and to count each blessing I have.