Whether you celebrate it or not, Christmas conjures up scenes of joy and happiness. It is a time for togetherness with loved ones where traditions are honoured and everyone gets the chance to break away from the hustle and bustle of life. Everything is sparkly, it’s pretty and it is impossible to escape the festivities wherever you go...afterall, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
Or is it? This time of year brings coughs and colds, the flu and the aches and pains. As a GP however, I see a surge of people really struggling with their mental health.
For a significant number of people, winter and the festive period is the most dreaded time of the year. There are several reasons for this. One is seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – a form of depression that affects people typically during autumn and winter. The days are shorter and the reduced daylight leads to physiological and biochemical disturbances in our bodies. Darkness induces the production of melatonin, the sleepy hormone, making us more susceptible to feeling tired and lethargic. Prolonged darkness also lowers serotonin production – our happy hormone – as well as influencing the workings of various other hormones and chemicals which ultimately impact our body and mind.
Typical symptoms of SAD include low mood, carbohydrate cravings, weight gain, tiredness all the time, irritability, feelings of hopelessness and loss of interest in hobbies or interests. It can be a very dark time, in every way, for some people who may not understand why they feel the way they do. So be kind to those who perhaps aren’t in the mood for dancing around the Christmas tree and give them some space. Consider buying a SAD lamp as a pressie and remember the more exposure to daylight the better it is for our mood. Make it the perfect excuse to lift spirits by wrapping up and going out for a walk during daylight. A walk-and-talk with a loved one is more valuable than anything money can buy.
This time of year really should be whatever you want it to be but we live in an insanely consumerist era thus festivities bring us more anxiety about presents than they do about being mindfully present in the moment. We purchase things we don’t need, eat foods we don’t like or foods that we know are super bad for us and – something I see a lot of in NHS24 on Boxing and New Years Day – are people suffering from painful consequences of drinking too much.
You might have been working hard over the year to lose weight, eat better, exercise more or have simply been working hard and are in desperate need for a good rest. Instead, stress levels progressively rise in the run-up to the big day as we put pressures on ourselves to entertain stressful family gatherings with those we can’t stand or haven’t seen in a year. In a short space of time, we give our mind and body more stress than rest, potentially reverse all the good we have done to ourselves and then wonder why we feel so deflated post-Christmas.
I’m not being Dr Grinch and absolutely we should all indulge and enjoy ourselves, but moderation is key even at Christmas. Let’s not forget the meaning of Christmas and the sentiments behind this beautiful day. Make this time of year truly wonderful by spending more time resting and less time stressing. Make a conscious effort to disconnect from the devices and reconnect with yourself, loved ones and your environment. Instead of drawing up a wish list of things you want, how about adding “giving” onto that list. Lots of people, less fortunate, could do with some of your love and kindness so share it. Loneliness is painful especially as the media, radio etc place their preconceived ideas onto those who have nobody to share time with. Check-in on these people.
Lastly, blessed is the food that is so naturally rich in winter. The planet knows what we need so indulge in nature’s offerings, make homemade nourishing meals and enjoy. Your mind & body will thank you. Happy Christmas.