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.
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
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.
The festive season might seem to fill everyone else might be full of excitement and anticipation, but you can’t shake the nagging feeling that your mental health is about to take a turn for the worse.
It might feel counterintuitive that a period of family, time off work and eating your body weight in chocolate could make you feel low, but many people find exactly this in the run up to Christmas.
The reasons for this can be very personal (perhaps you’ve lost someone close to you and the holidays remind you of this) but there are lots of common things that might be triggering this feeling too.
So HuffPost UK spoke to experts who specialise in anxiety, depression, and more general mental health to ask why these things can be triggered at this time of year.
Why does my mental health get worse at Christmas?
It’s no surprise that many people worry about being able to afford all the extra expenses the season brings, especially as the costs just keep racking up, and knowing that this will continue into the new year can make the problem even worse.
A spokesperson for Anxiety UK says: “Financial difficulties may cause a great deal of anxiety at Christmas with presents to buy, outfits to pick out and all the festive ‘essentials’, such as tree decorations and gift-wrapping that need to be considered.
“Navigating your way through crowded shopping centres can also prove to be a nightmare.”
A 2015 survey by Mind found that 20% of people have felt lonely during Christmas as not everyone has family or friends to spend it with, and those of us who have experienced the loss of a loved one may find Christmas particularly difficult.
Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, says: “At Christmas existing problems can seem even bigger – if you are lonely, it can highlight how lonely you are and make you feel that you should be socialising.
“Although loneliness itself isn’t a mental health problem, the two are often strongly connected and feeling lonely can have a negative impact on your mental health.”
More Social Engagements
This might seem ironic given that many people struggle with loneliness, but those people who do have active social lives might find this doesn’t solve the problem either, as this party season can be overwhelming.
The Mind survey also found that 19% of people had pretended to be sick to get out of staff Christmas parties and 25% of adults in UK feel anxious about social gatherings during the festive period.
If you do make it out of the house, the amount you are drinking at this social occasions (and just about anywhere else around Christmas) can make mental health worse as well, as it exacerbates anxiety.
Chloe Brotheridge, an anxiety expert at Calmer You, says: “Despite its association with merriment, alcohol is actually a depressant, it lowers our sleep quality, and many people experience hangover anxiety (hangxiety) the day after a big night on the booze.”
Everyone knows that social media can be the perfect catalyst for perpetuating feelings of low self-esteem and self-comparison, as it encourages us all to believe we should have a perfect Christmas.
The Anxiety UK spokesperson added: “Those of us with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram may feel even more pressure to have a ‘perfect holiday’ as our feeds continually update us on the developments of other peoples’ lives.”
Darker evenings and colder weather can have an impact on our daily lives, and going for days without seeing any sunlight may lead to feelings of sadness.
What can I do to improve my mental health at Christmas?
Share Your Feelings
Whether it is with family, friends, or a trained counsellor, sharing how you are feeling is the first step towards making things better at any time of the year.
Stuart Hill, senior digital lead for the Mental Health Foundation, says: “It’s hard to admit that at such an exciting time of year you don’t actually feel that great. But talking about your feelings can improve your mood and make it easier to deal with the tough times. It’s part of taking charge of your mental wellbeing and doing what you can to stay healthy.”
Get Out Of The House
It can be tempting just to hibernate, avoid social engagements, and not leave the house, but Hill says that you shouldn’t let the cold weather put you off.
“It’s no surprise that cold weather and short days are not the greatest motivation to get you out of bed and on a 5k run! But research shows that doing exercise releases chemicals in your body that can make you feel good. Regular exercise can boost your self-esteem and help you to concentrate, sleep and feel better,” says Hill.
Take A Break From Social Media
If you think that social media could be playing a part in how you’re feeling (it is likely to be doing so) then why not take a digital detox and step away for a little while. It can be 24 hours or days, depending on how you feel, but you might be surprised by the difference.
Buckley says: “If you are feeling bombarded by external pressure to be spending money, socialising and having a good time over the festive period, you could consider taking a break from technology and set aside some time each day to do something else you enjoy like reading a book or watching movies.”
Give Some Thought To Self-Care
As soon as our mental health suffers, we can all be guilty of not taking the time to address our own self-care (especially around Christmas when we are so busy with other commitments).
Botheridge says: “If it’s not scheduled in, it often doesn’t happen so I believe we need to schedule our downtime and self-care to ensure we make it our priority. Several times a day, check in with yourself and ask yourself – how am I speaking to myself right now?”
Eat Well And Drink In Moderation
Of course we want to stuff our faces completely overindulge, but actually this can just contribute to an all-round ill picture of health (not just mentally).
Hill says: “For example, too much sugar can have a noticeable effect on your mental health and wellbeing in the short and long term.
″[And] some people drink to deal with fear or loneliness, but the effect is only ever temporary. It’s great to catch up with friends or colleagues in the pub – spending time on good relationships is essential for good mental health – but know your limits. It’s important to maintain your wellbeing, too.”