• Convention Season and Mental Health

    by  • July 10, 2013 • Essays • 1 Comment

    Con season is well under way, and I’m feeling overwhelmed! I’ve dealt with mental health issues (bipolar disorder and anxiety, to keep it simple) for my entire adult life, and cons present a unique challenge to maintaining my self care and stability. Even those of you who do not struggle with mental illness can benefit from this list, but I find it essential given my personal challenges.

    1. Pills Pills Pills

    Do you take medication? Double check, no…triple check that you bring more than enough medication to cover your time at the convention. This includes any “as needed” anxiety medication as well as maintenance medication. Store at least half of the medication in your hotel room and keep the rest on your person. If you lose your purse or wallet, you have your “back up” in your hotel room. If you do need an anxiety med while out and about, you won’t need to further interrupt activities by making your way back to your hotel room. Carry a water bottle if possible, since medication generally works better and more quickly if taken with water instead of soda/alcohol/what have you (also, many medications shouldn’t be taken with alcohol). Some of us can dry swallow, but this is not recommended. Medication can get take longer to make its way to the stomach and thus not be absorbed promptly this way.

    2. The 3-2-1 Rule?

    A pretty common rule for con going is the “3-2-1” rule. 3 hours of sleep, 2 meals, and 1 shower a day. Short and sweet, but  actually not that helpful. Those with anxiety and mood disorders (particularly those of us who have to manage stages of mania) need to be more mindful of sleep. Ideally, you should get 7-9 hours of sleep a night, even during a con. I’m going to be realistic here, since few people manage to get that even during their day to day lives. You should aim for 5 or more hours of sleep a night, and try to alter your regular sleep schedule as little as possible. “But so much of the good stuff happens late at night! And I’m on VACATION!” Well, okay then, but be willing to miss some day time activities to catch up. Ignoring your need for sleep can lead to ruining later days of the con because your symptoms are going to be more intense. Sleep is one of the best way to replenish spoons1. I caution against using a sleep aid unless it is part of your regular medication regimen. OTC sleep aids screw with REM sleep and are often less restful than natural sleep. Also, please do NOT mix OTC sleep aids with alcohol.

    3. Om Nom Nom

    So you’ve been to three panels, played two game slots, are getting ready to go to a live band, and have plans for a room party tonight? Awesome! Did you remember to eat? The complementary energy drink and a bag of crunchy cheese curls doesn’t count. Cons are hectic, and meals are rarely part of the schedule. Like sleep, food is necessary to keeping your moods stabilized. Neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are key players in moods and anxiety. They’re not infinite resources! Our bodies replenish them through, you guessed it, the food you eat. Protein and complex carbohydrates are especially important here, which is why soda and chips won’t cut it. Make mealtime a part of your scheduled con activities. Playing an RPG that goes over the time slot? Move the game to the lunch table! If you’re like me and sometimes have trouble eating, always carry something that is easy for you to eat and is more than a quick sugar fix. I plan on keeping a can of Ensure in my purse, because it is a full meal replacement and is easy for me to eat on the go. I still need to eat an actual solid meal. Dietary supplements are not meal replacements. They should be used as a temporary solution until you can get a full meal.  Again, the 3-2-1 rule needs a little modification here. 2+ meals is a better guideline. Healthy(ish) snacks should be a part of your con plan, as well as 2 full meals (protein, veg, starch).  Also, not eating enough can make sleep more difficult. Self care interconnects.

    4. Non-Pharmaceutical Coping

    We all handle triggers and stressful situations differently. Bring your portable coping skills with you. Knitting needles, notebooks, sketchbooks, portable games on your phone or a handheld console? Bring them. Sound like you might need to carry a lot of stuff? Yup, probably! Messenger bags are your friends. The nice thing about cons is most people aren’t going to bat an eye if you pull out your calming method of choice and start using it. Obviously standard manners need to be practiced. It’s pretty rude to use your DS during a panel. But if you’re waiting in line and feel overwhelmed by the crowd? By all means, catch those Pokemon. Remember to bring chargers for electronics.

    5. Beer and Wine and Liquor, Oh My!

    For a lot of people, cons mean parties, and parties mean alcohol. If you’re a drinker, be responsible. This should be a no brainer, but I know it’s pretty easy to fall into drinking as a coping skill when you’re anxious or stressed out by the day’s activity. Story time: I drank too much at Gen Con last year, embarrassed myself worse than my anxiety ever could, and got very, very sick the next day. Think cons are stressful and hectic and anxiety inducing normally? Being hungover makes all of that worse. Some con party drinks are stronger than you’d expect, and a lot of medications make interact hit you harder than you’d think. Alternate alcohol with water and err on the side of caution. Alcohol is fun, but it’s not something to take lightly, either.

    6. Powering Down to Charge Up

    Even the most extroverted among us can get overwhelmed during the constant noise and human interaction that comes with conventions. Gaming conventions in particular can sap your energy because your brain is working overdrive to create exciting stories with both new and old friends. Downtime, like meals, should be scheduled. The biggest issue with finding downtime usually comes down to the ability to say “no.” Your friends want you to go to a panel you’re not interested in? Say no and retreat to your hotel room, or an area outside the con to recoup, relax, and unwind. Like sleep and food, if you ignore the need for down time and privacy, you’ll pay for it later. Many people choose to nap in their downtime. I prefer to read or journal. Whatever you need to do to make recharge, make sure you set time to do it.

    7. H20h Yes Please!

    This is simple. Drink water. Carry a water bottle and utilize drinking fountains to save money. Energy drinks, soda, and coffee are part of con culture, of course. You should try to keep your caffeine:water intake at a 1:2 ratio. Think you’ve had enough water? Drink a little more. You’re walking around in an area stuffed full of people. It usually gets hot. You’re probably sweating more than usual, and if you work an office job, cons usually mean your’e exercising more, too. Sports drinks are also handy here, but can be expensive and shouldn’t make much of a difference if you’re also eating right.

    8. Missing Out

    Here comes the no-fun part. If you have anxiety, mood issues, etc., it is quite possible that even the best laid, most organized plans are going to go wrong. Say you have a panic attack in the middle of a panel. What do you do? Make sure you have a plan before this ever happens. Tell friends what’s going on. Leave the activity if you need to. Go to the hotel room to recoup. Practice your version of healthy self care until you can return to the con. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. This sucks. A lot. If this happens, you are going to miss out on stuff you wanted to do. When you’re out of resources, you’re out. You can try to keep pushing and going through with plans, but you will likely have no fun and potentially lead to a full blown crisis. It this happens, be gentle to yourself. Check to make sure you’ve taken your medication. Take a nap if it is possible. Drink some water. Eat a granola bar or some of the fruit you bought at the grocery store. Once you’ve feel strong enough to return to the activities, do so, but don’t rush right in. Go to a smaller panel, or observe from the exhibition hall instead of throwing yourself into an activity. If people ask where you were, tell them what you’re comfortable with. “I was tired and needed a nap” is completely acceptable if you don’t want to explain the details.

    If you do hit a full blown crisis, be sure to inform your roommates and friends and follow your personal crisis procedure. Crisis procedures vary from person to person and should be a part of your normal, every day routine, not just conventions. If you end up needing to use it, that doesn’t mean you failed. Conventions should be fun, and the best way to ensure that is to take care of yourself.


    1. Read more on the Spoon Theory.


    I'm an indie RPG enthusiast, podcaster, prolific Tweeter, road trip warrior, sex positive feminist, mental health activist, opinionated writer, and an aspiring neuropsychologist. I try to find time for my day job in between all this, but hopefully that's a temporary situation.


    One Response to Convention Season and Mental Health

    1. avatar
      Jodi Black
      July 11, 2013 at 19:03

      This really sums it up well, thank you! I’m totally linking this. My main qualifications for cons are to go to bed before 2 am (for my husband– for me it’s midnight. I need my sleep because I work my tail off at cons), focus on the greens and low-sodium protein for meals (starch comes easy), only water except for 1 cup of morning java and 1 mid-afternoon soda for caffeine (no, really, I get MEAN if I’m tired and wired), and finally sturdy sneakers with orthotics and cushioning socks. By the end of a 4-day con my hips and knees are killing me, and usually my ankles are swollen too, but the supershoes make them all less so. Oh, and the shower goes without saying, but yes, too many neglect it! I can’t even imagine a con if I had to face some of the challenges you mentioned. Kudos :)

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