The festive period can be a challenging time for anyone, not least those struggling with mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression.
Christmas is viewed as a time for unadulterated happiness, partying and socialising with family and friends but for others, the diminishing daylight hours, the pressure to be upbeat at all times, and memories of family members who are absent can make the season a very difficult time.
In 2016 the charity Samaritans urged people to stop striving for a perfect Christmas, after a survey of 1,160 adults in the UK found that 50 per cent of people hide their feelings at Christmas to keep others happy. Another survey by Mind revealed that nearly 60 per cent of people with mental health problems have experienced panic attacks over the festive period.
Mental health issues are common, and not exclusive to the Christmas period, but they may be heightened during it. Here are my tips for managing your mental health at Christmas.
1. Avoid dwelling on the past year
As Christmas is the end of the chronological year, people tend to look back on what they have achieved and what they haven’t. If you are suffering with depression or low self-esteem, there is a real risk that any negative feelings of under-achievement, or the past year not living up to your expectations, are exacerbated. Focus on the positives and set goals you want to achieve in the following year.
2. Get out the house during daylight hours
Winter months can trigger Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in those vulnerable to the condition. Shorter daylight hours combined with lack of sunshine can impact negatively on your mood. Many people find themselves staying in the house over the Christmas period, however, try and get out at least once a day, even if it is just for a short walk.
3. Everything in moderation
Over the Christmas period it can be tempting to over-indulge in both food and drink and this can be a way of coping with difficult feelings. Drinking excessively over Christmas will impact on mood and anxiety. Significantly changing your eating, especially if you experience disordered eating, may introduce feelings of guilt and low self-esteem. Try to do some exercise which involves getting outside – running, walking - as this can help to improve your health and wellbeing.
4. Volunteer in the community
Christmas can be an isolating period. Many organisations and charities reach out to people to spend Christmas morning with the elderly or helping the homeless. Whether you wrap wanted gifts for local charities, or volunteer at your local hospital, or help cook lunch for the homeless then it can give you a real sense of purpose and make a difference to someone else’s day.
5. Don’t be afraid to say “no”
The festive season, or “party season”, can involve more social pressures than usual. A recent survey by Mind, found that one in four adults in UK feel anxious about social gatherings during the festive season. The pressure to fit in can become intense and whilst it is important to get out and about and mix with other people, don’t beat yourself up if you turn down an invite or make an excuse to leave early.
6. Have realistic expectations about family gatherings
Christmas is always hailed as ‘family time’ and this can place pressure on already strained family relationships, particularly amongst those who don’t see each other very often and aren’t used to spending a long period of time together. Managing your expectations can help reduce the effects these feelings can have on you.
7. Live in the moment
Try as best you can where possible to avoid dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Living in the moment is easier said than done but simple mindfulness exercises can help to focus your mind on the present. Find out more at www.bemindful.co.uk
8. Talk about your anxieties
Talking with a friend or relative about the things that are worrying you can help you to realise that some of them aren’t so important after all, and help you to focus on one or two things that are at the root of your worry. The Samaritans provide a free, confidential, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week support on 116 123. They also have local branches in many areas where you can drop in to speak to someone face-to-face. For more information visit the Samaritans’ website. There is also a free confidential hotline for older people called Silverline.
9. Get enough sleep
Be mindful of technology use near bedtime. Avoid watching TV in bed – the same goes for streaming on a laptop or tablet. Try to charge your phone and devices outside your room. Avoid using your smartphone in bed, as its noise and light can interfere with sleeping. LCD screens on phones and tablets emit light that is blue enriched; this light influences the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) and delays the release of the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin.”
10. Listen to music
In my clinic at the Priory Hospital, I recommend that my patients listen to a relaxing playlist of, for example, light classical music that induces relaxation. I usually suggest a 30-minute playlist.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.