With its emotional, economic, and physical demands, the festive season is a boiling pot of mental health problems with all the trimmings.
The pressure to socialise and entertain, host immaculate feasts, buy ‘perfect’ gifts, and generally uphold the festive spirit is enough to make even the most grounded Mary Popins reach for an escape umbrella.
Mental Health Problems and Christmas
An estimated 1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem each year, the most common of which are forms of depression, stress, and anxiety.
Such problems are a concern for both genders – women are statistically more likely to experience a common mental health problem, but men are much less likely to seek treatment.
Christmas stress can add to existing mental health problems or create new psychological burdens, and it’s good to be aware of your mental health triggers, if possible.
For many, it’s the financial pressure of Christmas. Rushing around dropping a load of cash on presents at the last minute is stressful in itself, but the economic build-up to Christmas can start very early – the increasing adoption in the UK of cut-throat consumerist spectacles like Black Friday and Cyber Monday has only added to this.
Social expectations of Christmas represent another important trigger. For those with depression or anxiety, the Christmas association with happiness and festivity can be crippling. The social aspect of Christmas can also increase the grief of those who have lost a loved one, and magnify their sense of loneliness.
Interestingly, popular culture represents Dickens’ famous miser Scrooge as the antithesis of Christmas joy. However, little thought is spared for the fact Scrooge clearly had traumatic psychological associations with Christmas – the Ghost of Christmas Past shows us that his unloving father practically disowned him and, in a later Christmas, his fiancée leaves him…
Dealing with Christmas Stress
To promote good mental health this Christmas, our doctors have put together the following tips on how to cope with stress and build resilience:
Set realistic goals and plan
Acknowledging the parts of Christmas you actually like and setting realistic expectations is a great way of putting Christmas in perspective.
Planning what you want to spend, what you do or don’t want to be a feature of your Christmas – or indeed whom! – and making sure things aren’t left to the last minute are crucial to achieving this.
If you’re travelling this winter, try and organise travel and any health appointments well in advance. Creating a list of tasks can help arrange your thoughts, and sharing responsibilities with others can make the whole ordeal more manageable.
Exercise is a great relaxation technique and can also help you feel more energised. As you exercise you release endorphins which calm you down and lift your mood. It’s also a great means of strengthening your immune system against whatever winter throws at it.
Try and work a few walks into your schedule, cycle to work when the weather isn’t too chilly, or start a regular exercise class in the run-up to Christmas.
Stay healthy and balanced
It’s probably a good time to read the shocking nutritional truth behind your favourite festive treats. Whilst it’s hard to escape the abundance of food and alcohol during Christmas, try to exercise moderation where possible. Over-indulging on comfort food can result in weight gain, increasing any existing sense of lost self-control.
Make sure you diet contains lots of fruit and vegetables, limit consumption of high-fat and sugary foods, and remember that alcohol can contain lots of hidden calories. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with a little indulgence, recognise it as such and don’t eat or drink too much.
Make time for yourself
In a season focused on selflessness it’s still ok to be selfish every now and then. Doing something for yourself that you enjoy, no matter how small, can be a great psychological break from the stress of Christmas.
Make time for yourself in your busy Christmas schedule, and ensure that you also get enough quality sleep.
Share the Christmas load
You may appear to be the one tasked with organising Christmas – buying presents, preparing Christmas dinner, feeling responsible for other people’s enjoyment – but you shouldn’t manage the burden all on your own.
Try to get others involved and delegate tasks, remembering your right to just say ‘no’. If you feel your stress levels rising, you can always make your excuses for a few events. Let others know how you are feeling so they can see how they might be able to help.
Whilst the social expectations of Christmas can be daunting, the festive season also provides a great opportunity to talk and get back in touch with people. Interacting with others produces oxytocin, which is beneficial for our mental and physical well being, and offloading your stresses verbally can work wonders.
If you aren’t able to see someone who will listen face-to-face, give them a call or write them a note to let them know how you are feeling. If you don’t feel you can tell those closest to you how you are feeling, you can always confide in a stranger via one of the helplines listed below.
Seek professional help
If you continually experience a stress, depression, or anxiety, remember that a whole body of professional help exists to support you. Here is a selection of mental health helplines that could help you:
- Rethink Mental Illness – 0300 5000 927
- Mind – 0300 123 3393
- SANE – 0845 767 8000
- Samaritans* 08457 90 90 90
- Young Minds (helpline for parents) – 0808 802 5544
- No Panic – 0844 967 4848
*Operates a 24-hour helpline