Looking after your mental health during the festive season is easier said than done. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Follow our stress-free Christmas guide to ensure your days stay merry and bright
For many of us, ’tis the season to be jolly. We’ll be cracking open the champagne, gorging on hot mince pies and tucking into Christmas pudding. But for the UK’s mental health charities, Christmas is a time when those who suffer from mental illness feel especially vulnerable.
A 2015 survey by the mental health charity Mind showed that more than a third of people with mental health problems have self-harmed to cope with the pressures of Christmas. Far more worrying is the fact that 45% of people surveyed also considered taking their own life over the festive period.
Meanwhile, the Health and Social Care Information Centre found that 21,700 people were inpatients at mental health hospitals during the festive period in December 2014. The statistics make for sobering reading.
Each of us knows that for every jolly family gathering, complete with tinsel and turkey, there are thousands of families across the country with empty chairs at their tables – and this Christmas the figures are likely to worsen, given the recent spikes in mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, especially among teenage girls.
I’m no different.
In my case, it was trying to throw a Christmas party that tipped me into a second major breakdown in 2004. In the run-up to the party, I had been trying to be all things to all people: the perfect mother, wife and friend, and attempting to tick every box despite increasing insomnia and rising levels of anxiety. My to-do list was never-ending. And I crashed.
I remained unwell for the best part of two years, felled by a serious anxiety-driven depressive episode. What, then, is the answer to avoiding a tumultuous Christmas season?
My own approach is somewhat different. This year, we’re not holding a big party. Becoming a volunteer with the education department at a local prison has helped me find a new perspective on the festive period, so too has running poetry workshops for mental health charities. As an ambassador for the mental health charities SANE and Rethink Mental Illness, this year I am trying in a tiny way to make a tiny difference.
After a recent family summit, we have decided to streamline our present-giving: all the adults are getting a paperback this year. And there’s one trip to what is arguably the least stressful kind of shop: a potter in a bookshop. Also, a friend swears by using only paper plates for her Christmas lunch; another serves choc ices so that “you don’t even need to wash up the spoons”.
Every little helps.
I have also tried to reassess my relations with others. Christmas is a time when many of us feel obliged to maintain friendships and other relationships.
As everyone knows, family gatherings can be a source of great strength and joy; but for many, they are a source of tension, anxiety and simmering hostility.
There’s no magic solution to alleviating Christmas stress, especially the flurry of activity that comes with shopping for presents and decorations. But the best present of all would be a nice, calm, happy you on Christmas morning.
To help guide you through a stress-free Yuletide, here’s my top tips for staying calm and well over the holidays:
When we are anxious, our breathing becomes fast and shallow. When we breathe more slowly, this forces our racing minds to slow down. It can help to close one nostril with a finger – this means we breathe at half the rate than normal, rather like when we have a cold. I stop and breathe in this way perhaps six or seven times a day around the Christmas season.
There is strong evidence linking depression with good and bad fats. Find good fats in oily fish like mackerel, salmon, anchovies, sardines, trout, tuna and whitebait, and in nuts like walnuts, flaxseeds and hemp seeds. (I remember that walnuts are good for my brain by the fact they actually look rather brain-like!) Try to make sure that your meals remain balanced, and avoid quick, festive sugar fixes. If 80% of your meals are nourishing, you can relax about what you eat on sociable Christmas outings. Also, if your family agree, swap your turkey for poached salmon instead. And remember: edible presents are a good way to solve what to eat and what to give in one fell swoop.
Initially, alcohol can make us feel relaxed and happy – but pretty quickly this effect is reversed. Alcohol literally depletes the bit of our brain that’s responsible for making us feel jolly, and contributes to insomnia too. If you do drink, limit your consumption to two or three glasses, with breaks in between to give your liver a chance to recover. Choose red wine over white, as this has some health-giving properties. When you’re not drinking alcohol, drink still or sparkling water with lemon, lime, ginger and spices instead of sugary options or diet sodas. Sweeteners have been linked to low mood in some studies.
Be kind to people. Develop a more compassionate inner voice, and call upon it to counteract negative thinking
Seriously, you’d be surprised at how many people are more than happy to join forces for a less stressful Christmas all round. Another thing to be mindful of is dominating the festive proceedings. Turn control into curiosity. Often we boss others when we ourselves are anxious. Allow others to be their best selves.
Research shows that exercise can be very effective in boosting our mood. We all know about endorphin highs, but I’ve never been sporty and I have a fear of gyms. I do, however, like getting things done and so love combining chores with exercise – both are less boring as a result. I bicycle to pick up Christmas decorations from the local market. You, too, can make outdoor exercise very enjoyable. Why not pick up a Christmas tree rather than ordering one online? It might seem time-consuming, but your festive spirits will feel the benefit.
Worrying about not sleeping is far more damaging than actually not sleeping. Our bodies make sure we get the sleep we need as long as we can be flexible about when we sleep, and catch up when we can. If you become tense when you feel you should be asleep, try practising muscle relaxation and breathing techniques.
Just because it’s the Christmas season it shouldn’t alter your sleep routine too much. Our bodies love routine, so keep to your normal schedule as much as possible, otherwise you risk suffering the symptoms of jet-lag – even if you haven’t gone away.
There’s lots of data showing that singing in groups boosts our collective mood. Christmas carols are full of consoling, healing language, and some are highly poetic. Poetry has proved to be a lifeline for me. It’s free, has no side effects, and helps fill up the spaces otherwise occupied by my insistent worrying. Poetry also makes me feel less alone (my beloved poets have become friends). And poetry gives me words to describe how I’m feeling when I cannot find them for myself. One of my favourite carols, In the Bleak Midwinter, was originally written by English poet Christina Rossetti.
Being kind to others has a very real effect on our happiness. We become kinder to ourselves and develop a more compassionate, accepting inner voice which we can call upon to help us counteract negative thinking. Healing mantras act as a balm for my hurt mind. Two favourites are “My strength is made perfect in weakness” and “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here” (from the poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann). I stick these on my bathroom mirror and use them as gentle reminders.
A technique that can help you experience the “eternal present” is mindfulness, a non-judgmental way of focusing attention on what we are feeling in the moment. My challenge has been incorporating this into my everyday life. The answer has been to make a daily activity a mindful one: I use hand washing. I pay particular attention to the sensation of cold water, the sound of the tap, the smell of the soap. These mindful moments provide full stops amid the rush, and a reminder to slow down. As you’d expect, I have very clean hands in December!
Seriously: you know best. Make a list of your own top warning signs that are making you feel stressed and overwhelmed as the big day approaches. Print it out, make a few copies, laminate them and put them in strategic places – on the bathroom mirror, in your bag, or next to your desk. And please remember to be as gentle as you can on yourself. This too will pass. Merry Christmas.