The most magical time of the year? TV adverts show perfectly joyful families, and Facebook posts give the impression that Christmas for everyone else is a blissful utopia of laughter, games, roaring fires and food that looks like Nigella just cooked it.
The reality for many is quite different. One in ten people feel unable to cope at Christmas, and this increases to a staggering one in three for people with a mental health condition. Worries about money, loneliness, and stress and anxiety over the pressure to have that ‘perfect’ Christmas are common.
I’ve found the last few years pretty difficult - a huge pressure to make everyone happy and ‘get it right’ on a limited budget as a single parent, together with the inevitable post-Christmas self-reflection. So much so that on the 28th December last year, I was minutes away from ending my life and ended up in the care of the mental health crisis team.
Thankfully this led to my recent life transforming diagnosis of ADHD (a condition that affects 3% of adults, most of whom don’t have a clue they have it), and wonderfully this year I’m not feeling anxious or overwhelmed as ‘normal’.
Here’s my alternative festive to-do list for a mentally healthy holiday season:
1) Let go of all expectations and don’t even try to make it ‘perfect’
This year I’m just going to ‘be’ rather than ‘try’. So what if I don’t get round to cleaning the patio doors? (I just laughed as I wrote this, that’s so not going to happen). So what if I forget gift tags? (I can improvise). So what if some people don’t want to join in family games? You’ll find that if you let go you will end up having a less anxious time than usual anyway. If anything goes wrong, so be it. Accept it and move on.
2) Don’t overdo it on gifts, food or alcohol
Finances are more difficult than ever this year for so many, overspending is common, debt increases stress. Drinking alcohol exacerbates many mental health conditions. So much of the food and silly gifts we buy at Christmas ends up in a landfill. Make sure you eat healthily and don’t feel the need to fill the fridge with food you will likely end up throwing away. Instead, why not give some gifts of your quality time in the form of a Christmas ‘cheque’?
3) Be kind to yourself and make self-care a priority
Make a pact to not beat yourself up for anything this Christmas. If you need to take time out alone to read a book, or have a soak in the bath, do it. Remember in a plane crash you are instructed to put your own oxygen mask on first before your child’s, so you are more able to help them. Self-care is the same as doing this.
4) Keep active and go outside every day for at least five minutes
I’ve found over Christmas that some years I can go days without spending any time outdoors or being active. Exercise is key for keeping mentally healthy (I’m not suggesting going for a ten mile run on Christmas morning, that’s pretty hardcore) but make it a priority to get outside for a walk in a park or garden for at least five minutes. This scientific study proves that even that short time is optimal for reducing stress and anxiety.
5) Take just one minute several times a day to deep breathe
This year, scientists discovered a link between deep, slow breathing, calming the brain and emotions. There’s a cluster of neurons in the brainstem that is essentially a respiratory or breathing pacemaker. Try it, I promise you’ll feel very different if you do this as often as you can!
6) Care for other people or give time to a cause
Doing good definitely does you good. Giving time to others has a huge impact on our own self-esteem and mental well-being, as well as benefitting the recipient. Go visit an elderly neighbour or offer to help at the local food bank with packing or deliveries.
7) Ask for support and talk about how you feel as soon as you feel low
Don’t put on a brave face. Don’t assume people are too busy to listen over Christmas. If you need to talk to friends or family, do so. Don’t be ashamed of saying you feel anxious, depressed or overwhelmed - it’s common and the more we all talk about it, the easier it will be. For crisis support for yourself or someone you may be concerned about, see your GP, go to your local A&E dept, or contact the Samaritans on 116 123.
8) Get in touch with people you don’t see often
This doesn’t have to be in person if this will add to your overwhelm and to-do list. Text or email someone to let them know you are thinking of them, and it will make you feel better too.
9) Don’t feel guilty about saying no
If you are tired and can’t face another social invite, don’t be afraid to say no. Equally, don’t isolate yourself either. Think carefully about your reasons. Am I hesitant to go because I feel under-confident, and as if I will be a burden? How many times have I socialised over the Christmas period already? Am I just tired? Think mental health first, always.
10) Remember what’s important and practice gratitude
Write down three things every morning that your grateful for. This could be as simple as the way your daughter told her Christmas cracker joke, or the Michael Buble song on the radio. Remember what’s important to you this time of year, and put peace and mental health at the top of the list.
Here’s mine: Peace, family, quality time, rest, giving, charity, warmth, laughter.
Wishing you all a mentally healthy Christmas and a peaceful New Year.