Christmas can be a difficult time of year, with many people experiencing increased symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. Consultant Health Psychologist Dr Sue Peacock from BMI The Saxon Clinic shares her advice for surviving the season.
It might be the most wonderful time of the year for some people, but for many others Christmas and the holiday season are actually very stressful. This can affect you whether you are living with a mental health problem or not.
The festive period brings with it many pressures, from feeling obliged to socialise more than usual to worries about how you are going to pay for everything.
Some people feel apprehensive about family gatherings, which themselves can encourage stressful situations or conflict. Others struggle with the temptation to overindulge in food and alcohol.
Whatever the reasons behind your worries, Christmas stress, Christmas anxiety and Christmas depression are all very real issues faced by many each year.
If you think your mental health might be impacted over the holiday period, looking to manage or pre-empt the causes can be a real help
I’ve put together an advent calendar of sorts: 25 tips that aim to help you look after yourself during the Christmas period. Hopefully some of these methods will help you to reduce stress and stop you from feeling anxious throughout.
Christmas is meant to be a time for happiness and relaxation for everyone, and that includes you. If you normally experience feelings of anxiety at this time, plan ahead to try and reduce how often they will arise.
And remember, if you are suffering from holiday stress, anxiety or depression, seeking professional help can be the first step towards recovery.
Tips for surviving the Christmas period
1. Keep your expectations modest
Don’t get hung up on what the Christmas holidays are supposed to be like and how you’re supposed to feel.
If you’re comparing your festivities to some perfect greeting card ideal, they’ll always come up short. Don’t worry about festive spirit and simply take every day as it comes.
2. Do something different
This year, does the prospect of the usual routine fill you with Christmas dread rather than joy?
If so, don’t surrender to it. Try something different.
Have dinner at a restaurant on Christmas Day. Spend Boxing Day at the cinema or get your family to agree to donate the money to a charity instead of exchanging presents.
3. Lean on your support system
If you’ve been feeling stressed, anxious or depressed, you need a network of close friends and family to turn to when things get tough.
During Christmas, take time to get together with your support network regularly – or at least keep in touch by phone to keep yourself centred.
4. Don’t assume the worst
Don’t start the Christmas season anticipating disaster. If you try to take the festivities as they come and limit your expectations – both good and bad – you may enjoy them more.
5. Forget the unimportant stuff
Don’t run yourself ragged just to live up to Christmas traditions.
So what if you don’t get the lights on the roof this year? So what if you don’t get the special Christmas mugs down from the loft?
Give yourself a break. Worrying about such trivial stuff will not add to your festive spirit
You may feel stressed and booked up already, but maybe consider taking time to help people who have less than you. Try volunteering at a soup kitchen or helping someone to do their shopping.
We always feel better when we have helped someone and made a difference, however small.
You really have more control than you think. If certain things are guaranteed to stress you out, avoid them
7. Avoid problems
Think about what people or situations trigger your stress and figure out ways to avoid them.
If seeing your uncle stresses you out, skip his New Year’s party and just stop by for a quick hello on New Year’s Day.
Instead of staying in your bleak, childhood bedroom at your stepfather’s house, book into a nearby hotel.
You really have more control than you think.
8. Ask for help - but be specific
See if your spouse will dig out the decorations. Ask a family member to help you cook - or host the Christmas dinner itself. Invite a friend along on shopping trips.
People are often more willing to help out than you expect; they just need some guidance from you on what to do.
9. Don’t worry about things beyond your control
OK, perhaps your uncle and your dad get into an argument at every Christmas dinner and it makes you miserable. What can you really do about it?
Remember your limits: you can’t control them, but you can control your own reaction to the situation.
10. Make new family traditions
People often feel compelled to keep family Christmas traditions alive long past the point that anyone’s actually enjoying them. Don’t keep them going for their own sake.
Start a new tradition instead. Create one that’s more meaningful to you personally.
11. Find positive ways to remember loved ones
Christmas may remind you of the loved ones who aren’t around anymore. Instead of just feeling glum, do something active to celebrate their memory.
For instance, go out with your sisters to your mum’s favourite restaurant and make a toast.
Tips for getting through Christmas party season
12. Don’t overbook
The festive season can last for weeks and weeks. People really need to pace themselves or they’ll get overwhelmed.
Don’t say yes to every invitation. Think about which parties you can fit in -- and which ones you really want to attend.
13. Don’t stay longer than you want
Going to a party doesn’t mean you are obliged to stay until the bitter end. Instead, just drop by for a few minutes, say hello, and explain that you have other engagements.
The hosts will understand that it’s a busy time of year and appreciate your effort. Knowing you have a plan to leave can really ease your anxiety about the situation.
14. Take a friend to the party
If the prospect of the office Christmas party is causing stress or social anxiety, talk to a friend and arrange to arrive – and leave – together. You may feel much better knowing you have an ally and a plan of escape.
Tips to make Christmas shopping less stressful
15. Forget about the perfect gift
If you’re already feeling overwhelmed, now is not the time to fret about finding the absolute best present ever for your great aunt or your postman
Remember, everybody likes a gift voucher.
16. Shop online
Perhaps just buy a few presents from the shops. Save yourself the inconvenience, the crowds, and the horrors of Christmas traffic and parking, by doing the bulk of your shopping online.
17. Stick to a budget
The cost of Christmas shopping mounts up quickly and can make people feel out of control, stressed, anxious and depressed.
Draw up a budget long before you actually start your shopping and stick to it.
Tips for self-care at Christmas time
18. Stay on schedule
As much as you possibly can, try to stick with your normal routine during the Christmas season. Don’t stay too late at parties. Don’t stay up all night wrapping presents.
Disrupting your schedule and losing out on sleep can make your mood deteriorate.
While you may not feel like you have the time to exercise during the festive season, the benefits are worth it.
There's evidence exercise can help prevent anxiety and depression. Gentle stretching can also help manage your mood and help you feel calmer.
You can still work physical activity into even the busiest days. When you’re shopping, take a few extra laps around the shopping centre. Walk your Christmas cards to the post office instead of driving.
20. Eat sensibly
When you’re facing a dozen festive parties and family gatherings between now and New Year, it’s hard to stay committed to a sensible diet. But try.
Eating healthy may keep you feeling better – both physically and emotionally.
On the other hand, don’t beat yourself up if you go overboard on the mince pies. It’s not a big deal. Just get back on track the next day.
21. Don’t rely on Christmas spirits (or other substances)
The festive season is often a time of heavy drinking. Remember that alcohol is itself a depressant and abusing it will leave you feeling worse.
Also, alcohol may not be safe for people taking antidepressants or pain medication.
22. Get more light
As the daylight grows shorter, lots of people find their mood gets gloomier. While some have diagnosed seasonal affective disorder (SAD), even people who don’t may still have a seasonal aspect to their depression.
Talk to your GP about trying light therapy. It could improve your mood. We know that improving your mood makes your pain easier to manage.
Some people find that even making a small change such as swapping their current light bulb to a daylight or natural light bulb can help.
23. Build in time for relaxation
The festive season can often place extra demands upon us, so good communication with family and friends is important and so is 'me time'.
Sometimes you might need to get away from the ‘hustle and bustle’ and find a few moments to focus on relaxation techniques. Even a short session will be beneficial.
24. If you take medication, don’t miss doses
In the hustle of the festivities, it’s easy to forget and miss medication. Don’t let that happen.
Make sure that you’re up to date with your repeat prescriptions, too.
25. Give yourself a break
During Christmas and the New Year period, many people find themselves dwelling on imperfections, mistakes and things they’re not proud of.
Be gentle with yourself and proud of how well you have coped with your pain!
Nobody is perfect, and you are not the only person who finds this a stressful time. For many people, just getting through the season is an achievement – so give yourself a break.
If you see a therapist, consider having extra sessions
If you already have a professional who you speak to and trust, make the most of them.
To stay grounded, plan ahead and consider booking some extra sessions during this season. Or you could ask about the possibility of doing quick phone or email check-ins.
If you have never spoken to a therapist or counsellor about your stress or anxiety, and especially if you are experiencing symptoms of depression, maybe this is the perfect time to take that first step.
Make it a Christmas present to yourself to look after your mental health.
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