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What to do if you're struggling with your mental health at Christmas
It may be a time of celebration, but the festive season can also be a stressful period for many. And if you have a mental health condition it can be even harder. We look at practical ways to cope over Christmas.
As Christmas approaches, many of us will have mixed feelings about the approaching festivities. What brings us joy at Christmas can also be a major cause of stress.
That was the main finding of a survey in 2017 by the Royal Society for Public Health. A whopping 84% of those surveyed said spending time with family over the festive season improved their mental well-being. But, it was also found that family arguments are the most stressful part of Christmas, with 76% claiming this had a negative impact on their emotional health.
Feeling lonely at Christmas
Jacquie* has been diagnosed with clinical depression and finds life especially challenging during the festive season.
"Christmas is a time when there's a lot of pressure to enjoy things and I see everyone around me celebrating with their families. I'm a single parent and my little boy is spending this Christmas with his dad. My own parents live in a different country and I don't really have a great relationship with them, so this time of year can be really lonely.
"To be kind to myself, I've saved up to go away to a sunny place to stay with a community of people this Christmas; I can either have time on my own or take part in group yoga and meditation - activities which I find help my mental health."
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Top tips for coping
If you can't get away like Jacquie and you're spending Christmas in challenging circumstances, what can you do to cope if you're feeling the strain? Alec Williams, senior policy officer at the Mental Health Foundation, suggests taking simple steps in four areas: reframing, boundaries, planning and action. And psychotherapist Alan Sparkes also offers some ideas with a similar focus.
"Re-framing is an invitation to think about Christmas from a self-care perspective, rather than it being driven by the obligations, the 'shoulds' and the commitments that are expected," says Williams. "It's easy to forget to look after ourselves at a time when we're focusing on those we care about. Ask yourself: How can I have a Christmas that works for me?"
- Think about what really matters to you at Christmas - perhaps it's love, kindness and sharing. Practise these values in small ways moment by moment, rather than feeling the pressure to make grand gestures.
- Let go of how Christmas 'should' be. Take a step back and give yourself permission to feel the way you feel.
"It's important to balance your sense of social obligation with your need for self-care," continues Williams. "You may wish to set boundaries and give yourself permission to say 'no' to activities that aren't good for your mental health."
Sparkes agrees and says it's not about being selfish, it's about being responsible for your own well-being.
"The idea that you might need to do something different from everyone else may feel disappointing and threatening for those around you. Even if it's just separating yourself for a short walk," he explains. "They may have their own idealised expectation of how Christmas should be, so try to help them understand why you may need space."
- Think about what your agenda is for looking after your well-being this Christmas and the steps you will take to prioritise it.
- Prepare some clear, positive responses that you can draw on in case of any challenging comments from those around you.
Turn your re-framing of Christmas into a practical plan.
"Write down what could be helpful, prioritise and take things step-by-step," says Williams. "Work out what you might need, when, and if there's anyone you'd like to tell."
Sparkes suggests preparing 'a mental health first-aid kit' in advance.
"It might include emergency phone numbers for your GP and local and national mental health support services," he explains. "Also consider asking a couple of friends you trust if you can call them for support should you need it. Include a list of activities and behaviours that you know will help you, such as exercise or looking at an anti-anxiety phone app."
- Make sure you get repeat prescriptions in well before Christmas so you have any medication you need.
- Be aware that your routine is about to change, and look at how to make time for the usual activities you enjoy that help you stay well.
"Because we can feel pressure to do something special at Christmas, you might feel that your usual routine isn't good enough," says Sparkes. "But whatever you enjoy doing, find time for it and don't feel it has less value."
- Pamper yourself, stick to your plan and prioritise self-care.
- If you struggle to find meaning during the festive season, consider volunteering for a charity or community project.
If you have a mental health condition and are worried about coping over Christmas, talk with your GP about accessing the care you need. The following organisations and helplines also offer support over the festive period:
*Name changed at contributor's request.