Your Mental Health at Christmas
Christmas time is often packaged up and spoken about as a joyous time for everybody, something to look forward to and a welcome celebration as we reach the darkest point of the year. For some this is accurate and Christmas time is an enjoyable holiday where we eat lots of decadent food, exchange presents and have the luxury of day after day with no commitments apart from with the sofa, our pyjamas and a good nostalgic Christmas film. However Christmas isn't a jolly time for everybody and in my work I see many clients who describe the stress & anxiety, and in some cases the dread, they experience in the lead up to Christmas for a whole host of different reasons, and that is on a normal (whatever that is) year! This year it seems that even more people are struggling with their emotions in the lead up to Christmas and there are many different challenges we face at Christmas 2020, with certain restrictions and anxiety about the virus making what would normally be straightforward decisions and choices almost impossible!
So why is Christmas such a challenging time for so many people? Here are a few common examples of things I hear about:
Having to spend time with family or situations you want to avoid
Financial stress and money problems
Organisational stress around the celebrations and having the perfect Christmas
Missing people that are no longer around
Busy, crowded shops and spaces
Struggling with addictions and being surrounded by alcohol
Lack of support and services
Comparison and feelings of inadequacy when thinking about other people's Christmas
Experiencing pressure from others to be happy
Those experiencing depression symptoms can find these exacerbated by being around lots of jolly and happy people
Those experiencing anxiety can find this exacerbated by being forced around lots of people and into stressful situations
Feeling judged or unaccepted by others for being who you are or the lifestyle you have
Shaming comments and judgement from others about your food, weight and body image
Changes in routine, being away from home and your own comforts
Anxiety about the New Year and the pressure to reinvent yourself
Christmas in 2020
2020 has been a unique year and many people have experienced changes in their mental health even if it was something that they didn't struggle with before. There have seen many factors that have contributed to why 2020 has been so hard and everybody has a different experience. For some it has been worrying about their health or their loved ones, for others it's been the loneliness and isolation and for yet more still it's been the anxiety of the news cycle and the need to be constantly making decisions & choices. In this respect Christmas presents yet another challenge in 2020, although there has been a lifting of restrictions over the 5 days of Christmas this does not make necessarily make things easier as everybody has a different perspective and opinion about what the right thing to do is and how we should all be behaving. Try to make decisions and your plans based on what is best for you and not let yourself get pressured by family or friends into doing things that you consider unsafe or risky. Please listen to the safety guidance and be sensible, it's important that we consider how to protect the most vulnerable during this time whilst also looking after our own mental health and wellbeing.
My tips for looking after yourself during Christmas:
1. make a plan for yourself
If you know that Christmas is going to be difficult for you for whatever reason it is okay to make a plan in advance. This way you can really think about what is going to helpful and what you might want to limit or avoid. Are you going to be going somewhere unfamiliar or around people that trigger unpleasant emotions in you? Can you take something with you or manage these interactions to feel more comfortable? Do you need some time alone to recharge when around others? Do you need some time spent outside in nature? Are you not seeing family and are worried about being lonely - how can you make sure to have some human contact to alleviate these feelings? Phone call? Video chat? Make a plan of what you need and think about how you can schedule this into your Christmas plans.
2. avoid comparison
Social media makes it very easy to get swept up in comparison and to get sucked in looking at how everybody else celebrates and thinking you should be doing things the same way. Christmas means something different to all of us and there's no right way to spend December 25th - maybe you don't celebrate at all, that's also totally valid! You don't need to have matching pyjamas, tons of decorations or piles of presents to have an enjoyable Christmas but fixating on what others are doing is sure to make your own day less fun! Think about what your values are and what is important to you, maybe it's spending time with family, maybe it's eating tasty food, maybe it's having time to rest and not stress about work. Whatever your values are make sure these are the focus of your Christmas and not what everybody else is doing! Switch off or log out of social media for a time if it makes it easier for you to not compare your life to others.
3. say no when you need to
We often get invited or asked to do a LOT at Christmas but remember you don't need to say yes to everything! This year we may not be invited out to do as much as usual over the festive period but you may still have family members asking you to take part in things within the home such as activities, games & films. If this feels overwhelming and like it will not benefit you then you are allowed to say no when you need to. Think about whether this is going to enhance or support how you feel before making a decision about what you say yes to and try not to feel guilty for saying no, it's okay to prioritise your emotional needs!
4. let go of the need for perfection
Christmas seems to bring this up for so many people and I think it ties into the comparison trap that we often fall into, but things don't need to be perfect, in fact perfect doesn't really exist. I know we want things to be wonderful, especially when we have spent so long looking forward to them, but sometimes things don't go to plan! Often what ruins our experience is getting worked up when things go wrong and letting our emotions intensify and explode out of us. If you can feel yourself getting worked up try to pause and take some deep breaths, focusing on your breathing or taking a step away for a few moments. Remember there are only certain things we can control and stressing about things out of your control will make you feel grumpy and miserable.
5. take time for you
At Christmas we often spend a lot of time around others, whether that's friends or family but many of us need time alone to recharge and look after ourselves and this need doesn't disappear at Christmas time. If you feel this way, think about how much time you need and how you can factor that into your days. It might be taking a day time bath, going for a long walk and listening to a podcast or having a lay in/early night. Once you have a plan for what you need then communicate this to those around you and prioritise this need - you will be better company if you feel you have met your own needs first so it's for their benefit too!
6. think of activities to do with others
If spending time with certain people is triggering or distressing or you are worried about certain topics of conversation coming up, have a plan of how to get out of these simply and effectively. This may be having some ready responses that deflect and move on to a different activity such as "I don't want to talk about this right now, let's play some cards instead". Alternatively you could have some games and activities planned to play together so the opportunity for difficult conversations is limited in the first place! It's always okay to politely decline to engage in a conversation you don't feel comfortable with, this is a powerful act of self care.
7. speak about how you are feeling
If you can speak to someone about how you are feeling then this can be an enormous help at difficult times. If you are struggling in the lead up to Christmas then it may be useful to reach out and share this with a friend now.. you may find that they have similar challenges or stressful experiences at Christmas and that you can be a mutual support for each other. Maybe you can schedule in calls or a video chat over the festive period to support each other? If you don't have anybody close to you that you can speak to maybe think about joining an online support group or a peer mentor scheme. Mad Millennials has just launched peer support groups across the UK so head to their page to find out if there is one local to you to join and connect other millennials and a space to look after your mental health and wellbeing. And as always, if you are struggling and need urgent support then don't hesitate to contact the Samaritans 116 123 (freephone) or text SHOUT to 85258 for crisis support.
8. get some rest and prioritise sleep
Getting enough sleep is crucial to feeling good and looking after your mental wellbeing. I don't know about you but I feel totally exhausted after 2020 and so rest is going to be a big priority for me over the festive period. As I said above, try not to commit to too much and remember that resting is also a valid activity - you do not have to spend every minute of every day doing something. Many of us struggle with always pressurising ourselves to be productive but this is a great opportunity to wind down and take a step back.
9. keep moving your body
Although resting is important if we cease to move our bodies completely we may end up feeling low and sluggish! It's a fine balance. Do exercise if it feels good for you but don't shame or guilt yourself if you don't have the energy to do your usual intense routine. Make time to get outside and go for a slow leisurely walk or do some gentle stretches whilst watching your favourite Christmas film. Pay attention to how you feel and respond accordingly, is your body telling you to take today to rest or will you feel worse sitting on the sofa all day? Only you know what is best for you but it's important to maintain self care if you wish to feel good throughout the festive period.
10. eat food that nourishes you & try to avoid drinking too much
I know it's tempting to just eat chocolate and only drink baileys but be aware of how this makes you feel and whether this is really helping your overall wellbeing! No judgement on your choices because everyone should allow themselves to indulge and I am not advocating for restricting your food intake or shaming yourself for enjoying a treat, however eating nourishing food and limiting alcohol (or avoiding it completely) is going to help you feel well this Christmas. As with everything, it's important to check in with how these things are making YOU feel and make a decision based on that, not on what anybody else is telling you to do or because somebody else is doing something different.
I hope these tips have helped you reflect and make a plan for how you will look after your mental health and emotional wellbeing this Christmas. I hope that you have a great time whatever you end up doing and I'll be back to share more with you in the New Year!
I am an Integrative Therapist who works remotely online with millennials who are anxious, lost, and overwhelmed. I work collaboratively with people to support them in their emotional wellbeing, to develop skills in self-care and to foster a deeper understanding of themselves. If you would like to find out how I can help you to understand your emotions better, please book a free consultation to see if we are well suited to work together.
Alternatively, please come connect with me over on Instagram - I would love to get to know you further.