Mental Health At Christmas: How To Manage This Christmas
It’s the most wonderful time of the year, right? With all the hype and build-up, there’s an expectation that Christmas means perfect happiness, and a real pressure to be ‘living your best life’. It’s a time when FOMO (fear of missing out) can be at it’s worst. You might look at all the smiling Instagram photos and imagine each life is perfect, that everyone except you is overjoyed with family and friends. Wrong. While many people don’t talk about it, mental health at Christmas can be particularly shaky.
In fact, in a poll of 2000 adults on mental health at Christmas, 3 out of 10 people reported that their mental health ‘nosedives’ over the festive period. And research by the mental health charity Mind has found that people with mental health problems can find Christmas a particularly difficult time.
So what can you do to look after your mental health at Christmas? Read on for 7 tips on coping at Christmas.
1. Honour a lost loved one
If you’ve experienced bereavement, Christmas may be a time you feel the loss of your loved one the most. The closer someone was, the more likely we would have been to have spent past Christmases with them, and the memory of those good times can come flooding back, leaving the feeling of a gaping hole inside, while the rest of the world seems happy and festive.
No one can tell you not to feel that way and nothing can replace your loved one. But you can, if it helps, honour them at Christmas. Perhaps you could buy yourself a present from your loved one. Or get them a present and leave it by their resting place for a while. You might want to do a Christmas visit to their grave – perhaps with other loved ones, minced pies and mulled wine. You could make a donation to their favourite charity in their name, or do an activity that they would have liked. Talking about someone you’ve lost and sharing memories can be helpful, and a simple text like ‘I’m missing Mum, can we talk?’ can start the dialogue. While your loved one is not physically here, the impact they made on you always will be, and celebrating them at Christmas can help to reinforce that.
2. Make a plan to mitigate loneliness
Loneliness at Christmas is very common. In fact research by Statista has shown that almost 1 in 5 people feel more lonely at Christmas. And this doesn’t necessarily translate to being physically alone – 17% of people report feeling ‘alone in a crowd’ during the festive season. Because of the pressure to have ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ people often don’t share their true feelings at Christmas – feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, depression, and trouble coping at Christmas. And such ‘no talk rules’ around negative emotions may create feelings of loneliness even when we are surrounded by people. Then there are those who, for whatever reason, have no one to spend Christmas with, and that can be especially tough.
It is usually better to pre-empt loneliness to help manage mental health at Christmas, rather than be taken by surprise. Remember there are all kinds of organisations that offer outreach and connection services. For example Mental Health UK runs an online peer-support service called Clic which enables people experiencing mental health issues to connect with each other and give and receive support – you can join here. The Samaritans are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and you can call them on 116 123 or text SHOUT to 85258. The mental health charity MIND has collated a list of organisations to help meet all kinds of needs at Christmas. The charity Stand Alone that represents adults estranged from family, points out that many people in their community enjoy volunteering at Christmas – for example with the homeless. It’s a great way to meet like-minded people who also may not be doing the traditional Christmas, and helping those in need can help to take you out of your loneliness.
3. Take a break from the constant stimulation
Christmas is a very overstimulated time and can be particularly tricky for people with anxiety, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or ADHD. All the bright lights, crowded public spaces, cacophony of noises and overlapping conversations, not to mention the expectation to socially interact and be at your best, can create a lot of overwhelm, overstimulation and misophonia. This is where planning for breaks can help.
For example, if you’re visiting family over Christmas, is there a quiet room you can retreat to when things feel like too much? If you’re going out with friends and know that after a while you will feel overstimulated, can you book a taxi back ahead of time, so that you won’t have any trouble getting home when you’ve had enough? If you have a therapist, support worker or ADHD coach, try to do some planning and potential problem-solving with them ahead of the holidays. For example, try to pepper in time and days off amongst the holiday celebrations. On your breaks away from the hustle and bustle, it may help to shut your eyes for a bit, for a more restorative rest. Remember that feeling overwhelmed is normal for neurodiverse people and people who struggle with mental health at Christmas – try to reassure yourself that you don’t have to be ‘on’ all the time.
4. Keep some reassuring routine
For people with anxiety and depression, or people with ASD or ADHD, having some routine and structure can make all the difference. The sense of order and achievement in getting simple things done daily without having to replan every day, can be crucial – especially to neurodiverse people. Christmas often throws routine all off; we might be staying away from home, and the time off work or studies can be disorientating. At a certain point during the holidays, everyone tends to forget what day it is, but for good mental health at Christmas, it might be helpful to take some of your reassuring routines and rituals with you. Have a favourite blanket? Pack it in your suitcase. Need a daily walk to blow out the cobwebs? Excuse yourself and take the time you need.
5. Get some exercise
For people with anxiety and depression, exercise can be an incredibly effective tonic. Moving your body encourages the release of feel-good endorphins, giving your mood a boost and helping to calm anxiety. With all the pressures of the festive season – to buy, to socialise, to travel – you might find it tricky to get to the gym, but a bit of gentle exercise should be doable wherever you are. Head out for a walk with the family, pack your trainers and dart off for a run, or even grab a YouTube yoga class – it really makes all the difference!
6. Stay sensible with food and drink
Yes, it’s a lot of fun to overindulge at Christmas and let’s face it – opportunities are everywhere. But for people going into the festive season with preexisting issues like anxiety, depression, ADHD or ASD, loneliness or bereavement, mental health at Christmas means curbing our enthusiasm a bit. All the sugary foods and simple carbs can create a high followed by a crash, leading to irritability, an anxious feeling, and low mood. And that’s before we’ve even talked about the ‘hangxiety’ that follows a big drinking session. No one is saying don’t enjoy yourself. But try to consider how the excesses might make you feel afterwards, and moderate them a bit. Mental health at Christmas means self-care and for some of us, a bit of self-restraint too.
7. Try some grounding techniques
For people struggling with mental health at Christmas, all the overstimulation, noise and pressure can be overwhelming. Sometimes painful memories surface too, or it might be difficult seeing family if relations have been strained. The pressure to buy a lot and to perform socially can all feel like too much. For people with ADHD and ASD in particular, all the sensory stimulation can create a feeling of overload.
If you’re getting anxious or overstimulated, it can be good to apply some grounding techniques to help plant your feet firmly in the present moment and calm you down. For example, try the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique: In this moment, identify five things you can see around you, four objects you can touch, three sounds you can hear, two aromas you can smell, and one thing you can taste. You can also try square breathing: breathe in for four seconds, then hold it for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and so on again.
Worried about mental health at Christmas? Here at The London Psychiatry Centre, we offer telephone appointments for those unable to leave their homes before, during and after the holidays. Speaking to an expert mental health professional can help you get through periods of low mood, anxiety or other negative emotions, and aid you with coping techniques to help make Christmas a little less difficult. To arrange an appointment, call us on 020 7580 4224 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.