How to prioritise your mental health this Christmas, with advice by the experts.
By Annie Hayes
The festive season is traditionally a time for celebration but it can also be a difficult period, especially if you struggle with anxiety or depression. This year’s yuletide may feel even more challenging, thanks to government restrictions preventing us from seeing families and friends, heightening feelings of loneliness. Many are contending with grief, financial worries and job insecurity caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, at a time of year that often puts extra pressure on us all.
We spoke to Niels Eék, psychologist and co-founder of mental health platform Remente, Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, and Brendan Street, professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health, for their tips on taking care of your mental health at Christmas:
How can Christmas affect your mental health?
If you find yourself struggling with your mental health at Christmastime, you’re not alone. Mental ill health issues including anxiety, sadness, fatigue, and social withdrawal can be exacerbated at this time of year for a number of reasons.
‘Christmas isn’t always the warm and connecting holiday season we hope it to be,’ says Dr Touroni. ‘For some people, it can be a very lonely and isolating experience. These types of holidays are often filled with expectation and therefore come alongside an added feeling of pressure of things being perfect. When that doesn’t happen, it can make someone feel like they’ve failed in some way.’
The season is also ripe with behaviour choices that impact mood, with many people exercising less and spending more. ‘Exercise has a beneficial impact on mood and the reduction of this over the holidays can lead to a dip in mood,’ says Street. ‘We may spend more, or worry about not having enough money. Financial concerns have a massive impact on mental health.’
Christmas isn’t always the warm holiday season we hope it to be. For some, it can be a very lonely and isolating experience.
Then there’s the physiological effects of unfettered festive indulgence. ‘What we eat and drink has a significant impact on mood,’ says Street. ‘Over Christmas there may be a tendency to eat unhealthily. In addition, alcohol consumption rises. When you combine this with altered sleep patterns, there is an inevitable impact on mental health.’
Worst of all, the social media cycle can make you feel as though you’re the only person in the world not having a good time. ‘Seeing everyone else out having fun on social media can highlight feelings of low mood,’ says Dr Touroni. ‘This time of year can be difficult for those who don’t have a family or have challenging relationships with certain family members. It can also be triggering for those missing someone important.’
10 tips to boost your mental health this Christmas
If you feel like you don’t have the time or energy to take care of your mental health this festive season, it’s all the more crucial to do so. ‘Christmas is traditionally a time in which we show kindness and goodwill to others,’ says Street. ‘But we cannot pour out of an empty cup. We need to balance the needs of others with the needs of ourselves.’
Whether you’re unsure how to cope with the loss of a loved one, feel overwhelmed by social commitments, or you are dealing with the stress of financial hardship, follow our tips for looking after your mental health this Christmas:
1.Take a break
After so long without face-to-face contact, socialising in a larger group may feel more stressful than usual, says Eék. So take a break – read a few pages of a book, listen to a podcast for 10 minutes, put your favourite album on, or go for a walk around the block.
‘Make sure to set aside some time to be by yourself if you need it,’ he says. ‘This may be five minutes taken to find some peace and quiet, or to practice some mindfulness techniques, such as breathing exercises or meditation. This can help you to keep calm and regroup before rejoining the festivities.’
- Talk it out
If you’re struggling with your mental health, know that support is out there waiting for you. Reaching out to a friend or family member can help to alleviate feelings of stress or sadness. They may be able to empathise and share their experiences, or figure out other ways to help and support you.
‘If you’re feeling lonely, don’t suffer in silence,’ says Street. ‘The best first step you can take is to talk to someone. If you feel like you don’t have anyone close to you, or are uncomfortable talking to friends or family, it might be worth talking to someone neutral.’ The Samaritans are available all year round, their new free helpline number is 116 123 and calls to this number do not appear on phone bills.
- Map out your day
This is especially important if you’re facing a solo Christmas. Forgo tradition and find other ways to spend your time that are meaningful to you. Reconnect with a hobby you are passionate about, try your hand at something new (learn how to bake sourdough bread, for example) or volunteer your time and skills elsewhere – at a local soup kitchen or shelter. If you can’t bring yourself to leave the house, a Netflix marathon can be equally restorative.
‘Focus on doing the things that you enjoy, whether that is cooking your favourite meals or watching your top festive films,’ says Eék. ‘You can also schedule some time to call a friend or family member, even if you can’t be with them in person. Keeping these lines of communication open may help you to feel less isolated and will act as a reminder that there are people you can talk to, even while home alone.’
- Manage your expectations
Make sure to manage your expectations of what’s possible this Christmas. Try to live in the moment, rather than dwelling on what might’ve been. Mindfulness exercises can help to focus your attention in the present moment and keep you from ruminating over the past or worrying about the future.
‘If you prepare yourself for the reality that the celebrations this year will be different to usual, it will be easier to accept and deal with any set-backs or obstacles as they arise,’ Eék says. ‘Once you are able to accept that things may go wrong and move past them, you will be more able to focus on the positives.’
- Minimise screen time
It’s nice to wish people a Merry Christmas digitally, but try to keep app-checking to a minimum. Studies have found that social media is a major contributor to feelings of depression and loneliness, says Street. If you find yourself in a scroll-hole, text or call a friend instead.
‘Remember that posts on social media don’t provide a true or full representation of people’s lives,’ he says. ‘They are snapshots and often heavily edited in a positive light. Having a small number of strong social bonds with other people is more important than having a large number of superficial friendships.’
- Try journaling
Writing down your emotions can be helpful in understanding and processing emotions and improving a sense of self-awareness, says Eék. ‘There is no set way to do this, it may be writing down a couple of bullet points or paragraphs, whatever works best for you,’ he says. ‘The important thing is to make this a habit that you are able to keep up.’
Alternatively, foster a gratitude practice. ‘This can be useful in finding the positives in the day-to-day this Christmas season,’ he says. ‘Taking a moment each day to note down even one thing you feel grateful for can help to promote a more optimistic outlook and encourage you to take notice of all the small and happy moments you experience.’
- Treasure fond memories
Christmas can be especially hard for those coping with bereavement. Honouring the memory of your loved one can be a useful part of the grieving process. Try making a plan in advance for how you want to remember them, if that’s something you feel ready to do, Dr Touroni says.
‘Maybe it means visiting their grave or where their ashes are scattered or visiting a place that was special to you both,’ she says. ‘Or it could mean lighting a candle for them or raising a toast with their favourite drink. The most important thing is to do something which feels meaningful to you.’
And if you don’t feel ready to do any of that? ‘That’s fine too,’ she adds. ‘Grief is a very gradual process – make sure you do what you feel comfortable with.’ Again, you can always call The Samaritans on 116 123 (or email [email protected]) if you are struggling with grief and need someone to confide in.
Christmas can be especially hard coping with bereavement. Honouring the memory of your loved one can help the grieving process.
- Stay active
It can hard to find the motivation to get moving when the weather is cold and the days are short, but using the extra energy from those mince pies to head outdoors for a walk or a bike ride will give your mental health a much-needed boost. Check out the Christmas lights and decorations in your local area, or head to the local park to watch the dog walkers.
‘Exercise releases feel-good hormones into your brain, so exercising regularly can help improve your outlook, making you feel more positive,’ says Street. Even a short trip outside can be good for your mental health, particularly in green spaces, adds Eék. ‘Spending time in nature can bring benefits for your mental wellbeing,’ he says.
- Make mindful choices
It’s easy to over-indulge at Christmas time, but alcohol is a depressant and can negatively impact your mood. You may want to drink alcohol to make yourself feel better in the short term, but it can make you feel worse in the long-term. Try to be mindful of this and aim for balance and moderation.
In the same way, eating too much sugar can leave you feeling lethargic and low. There’s no need to cut out all your favourite festive treats, but make sure you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and stay well-hydrated. Getting a full night’s sleep can also help to boost your mood, so avoid coffee, tea and sugary drinks for a few hours before you head to bed.
- Do what’s right for you
How you choose to look after yourself ultimately comes down to your own unique situation. ‘If you struggle with certain family members, be realistic about how much time is healthy to spend with them,’ says Dr Touroni. ‘Instead of staying the night, visit them for lunch.
‘If you’re spending Christmas alone, plan lots of activities and video calls so you stay connected,’ she continues. ‘If you feel overwhelmed, take time out to do things that nourish you and provide you a sense of wellbeing – run a bath or book your favourite online yoga class.’