Arrow ImagePICU & Rapid Response

How to survive Christmas and keep your mental health in check

Christmas can be an overwhelming and challenging time of year, no more so than for those struggling with mental health conditions.

According to NHS England, one in four adults in the UK are likely to experience a mental health problem every year. When it comes to the festive period, research by mental health charity Mind has found the pressure people feel to have “the perfect Christmas” leaves one in 10 struggling to cope.

Liz Ritchie, an Integrative Psychotherapist for St Andrew’s Healthcare, shares her tips on not only surviving this Christmas, but thriving.

How does Christmas affect our mental health?

Mental health doesn’t take time off at Christmas, and with all the added stresses that can come with the festive season it’s very important to care for your well-being.

The impact Christmas has on mental health problems is most often negative. For people who are alone, the idea that others are enjoying themselves can intensify their own sense of loneliness. For those who are feeling depressed, a similar feeling can arise if they believe their own Christmas feels different to the one everyone else is having. For the bereaved, Christmas can be a particularly lonely time and a reminder of happier times with the family they’ve lost.

In reality, these feelings are exaggerated. Many healthy people dread the festive season; the hectic family gatherings, and the inevitable conflicts. The media portrays Christmas as a happy time, pushing the view that everyone else is having fun. Perception though is everything.

This is by no means universal of course – Christmas can also provide a positive boost to mental health. People who usually feel lonely will feel uplifted by taking part in family gatherings, for example.

How can we cope with the desire to make everything perfect at Christmas?

Being a perfectionist during the holiday season can be extremely tricky. Societal pressures often dictate that Christmas should be a time of togetherness, relaxation, ease and time with loved ones.

This leads many of us to ask: how do I do it all, not get stressed out and love every minute of it? Well, the reality is that we can’t do it all!

In order to stay mentally safe and stable during this time, a degree of flexibility is required. This may involve shifting your standards a little. This isn’t always easy, and it can feel challenging as it may involve doing things differently or even disappointing people, but it’s not possible to be perfect all the time.

With perfectionism in mind, it is important to ask ourselves the question – is the way we value ourselves based on what we do and how well we do it, and does this therefore mean that our self-worth is measured by other people’s responses and opinions of us? This is a good question to challenge perfectionism on a deeper level, and not in or around the Festive season.

I am panicking over over-spending at Christmas, and dreading checking my bank balance. How can I deal with debt-related stress?

Whilst Christmas should be a joyous time of year, for some it is a time filled with worry and stress about finances. Instead of eagerly awaiting Christmas morning, some people are dreading their incoming credit card bills in January instead.

Here are some ways you can avoid financial stress this Christmas:

  • Set a realistic budget; one that is within your means. You can set a budget for yourself this Christmas for everything, including gifts, groceries, decorations and more.
  • Speak to your friends and family; they may be surprisingly grateful to have the pressure taken off them as well.
  • Set a limit of one gift per person or a secret Santa, or in the case of larger families, no gifts for adults, so children only!
  • Talk about it; the biggest mistake we can make when we have financial stress is to ignore it, hoping it will go away. It is so important to address the problem. When you start talking about it you can start to deal with the situation. Perhaps chat to someone you trust that isn’t directly affected by your finances for a less emotive perspective.
  • Ask for help to address and reduce the debt; speak to a financial adviser, or someone who will help you to explore options and find solutions to your financial problems that you might be overlooking.
  • Working with a financial planner is a great way to get back on track so you feel more in control and optimistic about your situation.

Christmas can be a really stressful time of year. What sort of things do you recommend people do to keep their mental health in check?

Christmas can be an exciting and relaxing time for some, but it can also be a stressful and draining for many. It is easy to fall into the trap of worrying, overthinking, catastrophizing, comparing and ultimately taking the enjoyment out of what ideally should be a joyful time of year.

Here are a few tips that may help:

  • Have realistic expectations of yourself and others: No one is really going to change just because it is Christmas and the challenges we face on a daily basis do not suddenly miraculously disappear. So don’t attempt to change anyone as you will be disappointed, but rather navigate the Christmas with a focus on enjoyment and with the people that make you happy.
  • If you are feeling sad, for whatever reason, share your feelings: Talking or sharing your feelings is something that helps to chip away at the sadness. You can mindfully explore your feelings and ideally find ways to capture how you feel and let them go.
  • If you need help, and it is being offered, accept it! There can be an exaggerated sense of responsibility around the festive season. Share it out if you can! The truth is that if you continue to do everything on your own, the load will get heavier and could lead to burn out.
  • Do what makes you happy: Make time and space for things that you enjoy. Try to prioritise pleasurable activities during this time. Chores and other usual commitments will still be there when it is over! Make space and prioritise your pleasurable activities.
  • Beware of social media and comparisons; Not everything you see is true and what people post is not always a true reflection of what is happening in their lives. If you end up unfavourably comparing yourself to friends, remind yourself that what’s most important is what’s happening in your life, and not in the virtual world. There’s nothing wrong in taking a break from social media.
  • And finally, look after yourself. Focus on your self-care, by putting money into your own well-being account.

What can you do if it is all getting too much?

STOP AND BREATHE. It really doesn’t matter. Nothing is an emergency when it comes to celebrating Christmas. Nothing will “spoil” your day, unless you allow it to. Why? Because it is a DAY. It is 24 hours after all!