Mental Health At Christmas
Updated: Dec 22, 2021
1 in 4 people suffer with mental health problems and, whilst Christmas is an exciting time for most, it can be an overwhelming and potentially damaging time for those struggling with these problems. Whether it's the financial stress of buying all those presents and food, the pressure to see everyone or trying to find the time to do and see everything it can all become too much. So here are some ways that you can look after your own mental health and some tips on how to support someone else if they are struggling with the festive season.
For your own mental health:
Be mindful of - Alcohol: whilst it can initially make you feel more relaxed, alcohol is a depressive and can make you feel irritable, aggressive and low. Don't go overboard and you might just avoid the hangover as well.
- Food: with so much tasty food lying around at Christmas there is a tendency to overindulge so try to maintain a balanced diet. This should help to keep your mood stable and avoid irritability and mood slumps.
- Sleep: Christmas tends to mess with sleep patterns, with everyone staying up later to indulge or play party games. Whilst this is okay, it is important to try and keep on top of the amount of sleep you're getting. Where possible maintain your regular sleep pattern but always try to ensure that the average amount of sleep you get is the same as you would on a regular week. If you know you have a big day coming up, get an early night the night before, e.g. on Christmas Eve, to ensure you feel well rested for the day ahead or have a lie-in the day after. Additionally, if you are in a house full of people, who may stay up later than you or go to the bathroom at all hours of the night, invest in some ear plugs to minimise the disturbance to your sleep.
- Exercise: it can be difficult to motivate yourself to go out and exercise when it is cold and dark (and quite possibly wet) but it is very important and can have a positive impact on your mental health. If you really don't want to go outside there are loads of exercises you can do in the house. You could find an app or website with home 'workouts' (the NHS has a web page on exercises you can do at home) or you could simply put on some Christmas music and dance around the house or sing along while doing some housework. Anything to get your heart rate up and your blood pumping.
- Relax: It is okay to take time out to look after your mental well being. You know what is best for you, don't let others dictate what you should be doing. Some people find that mindfulness is the best way to get some 'me time' and put everything back in perspective, others find a walk is best for escaping the festivities and clearing the head - whatever works for you, make sure you take the time to do it.
Be honest - be honest with your family and friends about how your feeling. Let them know if you are feeling overwhelmed or if you aren't feeling up to getting involved with everything. Don't be afraid to cancel plans, just make sure to look after yourself and talk about your feelings with someone you trust (or find an online support group) so you are not struggling alone. Also, be honest with people about what they can start, stop, or continue doing to support you, e.g. let them know what activities you feel comfortable participating in or what conversation topics you'd like to avoid...
Take a break - sometimes you just need to press pause on the festivities and spend a day on your sofa in your pyjamas with a hot drink and a good book (or movie, whatever feels most relaxing to you). Trying to do something every day is too much for some people and that's okay, take time to make sure you are happy and relaxed; the holidays are for everyone after all.
Plan ahead - Consider what might be difficult and if there's something that might help you cope. It might be useful to write this down. For example; if you suffer from flashbacks or panic attacks think about what helps you in these moments and keep it with you. If you are going somewhere unfamiliar, think about what can help make it feel more comfortable. Consider whether you really need to do something if you're not looking forward to it. Can you do it differently or for less time?
Make a list of services (e.g. the helplines) that you may need over Christmas and any opening hours (if they have them).
Plan to do something nice after Christmas - if you find the holidays difficult give yourself something to look forward to either just after or in the New Year.
Manage your expectations - Christmas in the adverts is very different from Christmas at home, mainly because the adverts paint an unrealistic picture of a 'perfect' Christmas. The 'perfect' Christmas is what we decide it is and for most people it is far from what we are shown and having high expectations just puts a lot of pressure on you and your family. This doesn't mean you should assume the worst or that disaster will strike, it just means try to take the festivities as they come and if the roast potatoes are a little crispy it's ok.
Set boundaries - say no to things that will do more harm than good; an extra party, a late night, another meal out... Set start and end times for yourself, e.g. for Christmas Day or a party. Remind yourself that they won't last forever and you can leave when you need to. It's ok to say no or step away from the festivities to look after yourself.
Don't forget the good habits - Christmas can be a time when all your good habits slide and that can have a detrimental affect on your health (physical and mental). If you have routines that work for you, don't let the festivities get in the way of them. Make sure that in the midst of everything you remember to take any medications and find the time to exercise and practise your relaxation techniques so you stay in control.
Get some sun - Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a condition where depressed symptoms are heightened because you haven't got enough vitamin D. It's difficult to get enough sun in winter so try to make the most of any sunny days we have and get outside during your lunch breaks, just make sure to wrap up against the cold.
It Is Okay to need time away from it all. It is okay to feel overwhelmed, just try not to be alone; talk to someone.
If you're supporting someone else:
Things that can help:
- Understand that Christmas means different things for different people. Not everyone finds Christmas a joyful time and the best thing you can do is be respectful of that and not force festivity on them.
- Let them know that you understand they might be struggling and that you are there for them.
- Tell them they're not alone. They may not realise that it's common for people to find the holidays hard.
- Listen to what they say and accept their feelings. Sometimees trying to give advice is far from helpful so just listen and be there for them.
- Ask if there are things you can start, stop or continue doing. Maybe suggest that they take some time to think about what would be helpful for them and get back to you on it. Ask if there are particular things about Christmas that they find difficult and try to find things that will help them e.g. helping them avoid difficult conversations or taking them away from certain situations or activities.
- Remember they are not trying to 'spoil' Christmas. No-one chooses to struggle during the holidays.
- Reach out to people who may be lonely e.g. someone living in a care home, a carer or someone who is in hospital.
- Look after yourself. Don't forget to take care of yourself because you are supporting someone else. It can be difficult to support someone at this time of year - you may feel sad or conflicted - so make sure that you tke a little time for yourself. If you are struggling it is okay to confide in someone about how this is affecting you. Your wellbeing matters too so set boundaries and don't take on too much.
Things to avoid:
- Don't make assumptions about why they find Christmas difficult.
- Don't ask intrusive questions about their past/experiences. It may be a very painful and personal subject and you do not need to know about it to be able to support them.
- Don't try to cheer them up. Whatever your intentions it is not helpful. Avoid saying anything like 'everyone else is having fun', 'you might enjoy yourself if you tried' or 'there are people who have it worse'. This doesn't help and may just end up making them feel worse.
- Don't take it personally if they choose not to join in or leave early. It may feel disappointing but it does not mean that they don't care about you.
- Don't make assumptions about what people can afford. Christmas can be an expensive and stressful time of year and not everyone can cope with that (both mentally and financially). If you think that money may be an issue you could suggest a spending limit for gifts to avoid anyone feeling bad that they couldn't match what others have put in.
Learning more about mental health problems can help you when supporting someone who is struggling.
There are lots of reasons that someone may find the holidays hard if they are suffering with a mental health problem. They may feel like a burden or that they do not fit in. Also, there may be some parts of Christmas that they enjoy and other parts that they struggle with.
Being more informed about someone's health problem and their experience can help to:
reduce stigma, misconceptions or assumptions
make celebrations more inclusive
make you aware of what they may find difficult
create a safe space for them to express their feelings or needs at Christmas
There are certain symptoms of mental health problems that may be exacerbated by Christmas. This could include eating problems, panic attacks, hoarding, symptoms of complicated grief, flashbacks and other symptoms of PTSD, mania or hypomania. Any number of these can be affected by certain ways of celebrating such as food, parties or gifts.
The Mind website (amongst others) has lots of information on mental health problems and how to support someone who is struggling. https://www.mind.org.uk/