Christmas and your mental health

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Christmas for some is a festive, jolly time filled with presents, family, friends, and lots of delicious food. For others, Christmas can be a time of stress, loneliness, disappointment, or anxiety. If Christmas is a hard time for you, this article is for you. To help you beat the Christmas blues this year, our mental health nurse Megan has developed an acronym called N.O.E.L.

N.O.E.L. stands for No, Open up, Enjoy, and Look forward. Let’s break that down a bit further.

N – Say NO if you need to.

You might feel pressured to have a Christmas that is ‘perfect’ like the movies or what you see on social media.

But you can say NO to:

  • Buying gifts, decorations, or edible extras if money is tight or if doing so will bring about feelings of stress or anxiety
  • Going to (or staying at) events where there will be drugs and/or alcohol if you are trying to reduce or stop your use
  • Spending time with people whose attitudes or comments trigger negative feelings in you
  • You can also say NO to being lonely or at least being alone.

So how do you say “no”?

If you are saying no for financial reasons, most people will understand and be supportive of you for taking control of your money. Having a workable budget can let you know what money you do have available for Christmas and can help you set and enforce limits.

It’s a good idea to tell your friends and family early that you can’t afford to buy gifts this year and suggests alternatives such as:

  • Secret Santa where each person buys a gift for only one person in a group
  • Presents for children only
  • Handmade gifts
  • Gift of time – offer to mind children, help with housework, home maintenance, share a meal or sit down together to watch a movie.

If you have children, let them know that not having a lot at Christmas isn’t because of their behaviour and it isn’t their fault. It’s just the way it is.

Saying no to drugs and/alcohol

If you are saying NO to drugs and/or alcohol, you don’t owe anyone an explanation about why. A simple “no, thanks” or “sorry, I’m not able to make it to the party” should be enough. If it’s not, you could say:

  • You’re cutting down or avoiding
  • Make an excuse such as an early start the next morning
  • Volunteer to be designated driver
  • Stick to a non-alcohol drink and nurse your drink for as long as it would usually have taken you to drink three of them
  • Change the subject to anything other than your drinking or drug-taking

Being around people who are pressuring you to drink or take drugs is going to make it harder for you to avoid doing so. Take a break from them or catch up at times when drugs or alcohol are not going to be available.

Saying no to family

There is often a sense of obligation to be with the family at Christmas which can make it very hard to say NO. Families are made up of people with different personalities, different viewpoints, different attitudes, different recollections of shared events, and an often unswayable perception of other people in the group. And this can lead to conflict. If this sounds like your family, you could consider:

  • Spending only a part of the day with them
  • Spending your get-together before Christmas Day or having a separate place to stay (if available and affordable)
  • Avoid subjects that usually lead to an argument. Change the subject or say “I’d rather not talk about that today.”
  • Monitor your alcohol intake. Alcohol can lower your inhibitions so you may be more likely to say or do something that you would not usually have said or done.
  • Plan to take time out such as a stroll (possibly with the family dog) to walk off lunch.

And remember you can only be responsible for how you respond to things that are happening or being said around you - you can’t control anyone else.

But not everyone has family or friends to spend the festive season with and could find themselves alone and/or lonely. Now being alone is not the same thing as being lonely. You are alone when you are physically by yourself. You may enjoy the solitude but know there are others you can contact when you wish to. And this is fine. You are lonely when you feel disconnected from people around you and/or long for company when you are alone. This is not okay.

Social media use at Christmas

While social media can be a great way to keep in touch and stay in touch with friends and keep up to date with what’s going on in the world, it can also have you comparing yourself to others, spending time scrolling instead of socialising or engaging in self-care or being constantly living in FOMO or FOFO (fear of missing out or fear of finding out).

Remember that social media is not an accurate reflection of people’s lives. People only post what they want others to see. And there is a cycle of unhealthy social media use – if you look at your phone because you’re bored or lonely, your FOMO and feelings of dissatisfaction and isolation increase, your anxiety, depression and stress worsen, and you use social media more.

If you’re spending more time on social media rather than with real-world friends, have some social media breaks by turning off your phone at certain times of the day (such as in the hour before you go to sleep and while you are trying to go to sleep), when you are driving or when you are spending time with offline friends.

O – OPEN up about how you feel

Other people aren’t mind readers. They may be able to pick up cues about how you’re feeling but they may not. Tell them what’s happening with you.

If you know what’s triggering any unpleasant or unhelpful feelings you can either try to avoid being in the situation that brings them up for you or challenge them and you may find you can cope better once you change the way you think about things.

You could also keep a journal where you can vent your frustrations and celebrate your victories if you don’t have a person you’re comfortable with or able to share things with.

E – ENJOY what you can

There are so many things that make up Christmas. Some people love the hustle and bustle of the shops, whereas others prefer quiet contemplation of their faith.

Think about the things that make Christmas enjoyable for you and bring them into your day. It could be something as simple as:

  • Enjoying a mince pie
  • Looking at Christmas lights
  • Re-watching a favourite movie
  • Re-reading a favourite book
  • Getting to the screening of the latest movie
  • Making seasonal food
  • Looking at photo albums
  • Listening to Christmas carols or joining the congregation of a local church service or event.

Choose activities that make this time of year enjoyable for you.

L – LOOK forward

Remember that Christmas is one day. With the build up to Christmas starting months before the day itself, having something to look forward to can help such as:

  • Starting a new project (or committing to finishing an old one),
  • Seeing a film at the cinema
  • Writing on your calendar the day that something you enjoy re-starts in the new year.

Recognising what is impacting negatively on your mental health, and then taking steps to challenge or overcome these issues will help you get through the Christmas period.

But if you feel you need a bit (or a lot) more support, remember that the following are always available: