Look after your mental health at Christmas

Christmas can be a magical season of spending time with loved ones, enjoying holiday parties, and giving and receiving gifts. But the festive season can also be hard on your mental health.

Holiday gatherings can reignite family tensions, social pressures accentuate feelings of anxiety or loneliness, and shopping for gifts highlights financial pressures. Cindy Seaton, a registered psychiatric nurse and mental health therapist, says people tend to get caught up in trying to achieve the magic of the holidays and lose sight of reality.

“There are so many Hallmark movies and the perfect image of Christmas that a lot of people get caught up in trying to create that. And in reality, a lot of us are never going to have that Hallmark Christmas. We just don’t have those Hallmark families.”

Research shows Christmas can have both positive and negative impacts on your mental health. There is a rise in alcohol-related deaths over Christmas, and there is potential for increased feelings of loneliness, anxiety and helplessness. However, the holidays can also have a protective effect, with several studies revealing a decrease in the number of suicides and incidents of self-harm, although there can be a rebound in these areas post-holiday season.

For people experiencing mental health challenges, the holidays can accentuate their feelings as they internalize pressure to “get into the Christmas spirit.” Cindy notices a trend every December in the outpatient group therapy program at Grey Nuns Community Hospital where she works.

“The closer it gets to the holidays, the more they’re talking about the stress and the anxiety.”

Here are some tips to help you care for your mental health over the holidays.

Be realistic

Your Christmas won’t be perfect, and things won’t always go as planned. Don’t beat yourself up for what you don’t have or what you’re not able to do but celebrate the successes instead.

“Look at the positives and what went well instead of focusing on what didn’t go well or what we didn’t get done or what we didn’t get,” says Cindy.

“Be realistic going in and be realistic coming out the other side.”

Know your limits (and stick to them)

It’s easy to take on too much during the holidays. That’s why Cindy recommends you establish a financial plan going in.

“Don’t go out and spend all the money you don’t have and try and figure this out in January. There’s no better way to pile on the stress and the anxiety than to get that credit card bill after Christmas is done. So be realistic. Stick to a budget.”

This applies to more than just money. Be OK with saying no to planning another party or organizing another gift exchange.

“You’re supposed to get some enjoyment out of this too. So don’t be the one doing all the work.”

Help others

It’s better to give than to receive. Cindy says she has seen that with her group therapy participants, who find help by helping others. You can volunteer to serve a Christmas dinner for the less fortunate or even spend some one-on-one time with a friend who’s struggling.

 “It gives them a real sense of purpose, and it gives them a sense that they’ve given something. They might not be able to afford to go buy any Christmas presents, but they can go give them time and give them themselves.”

Remember loved ones

There can be an emptiness to holiday celebrations if you’ve lost someone close to you. Find a way to remember them, perhaps even starting a new tradition that involves their memory.

“Acknowledge that this is a sad time. Don’t just cover it up with all the Christmas festivities but be able to recognize that loss,” says Cindy. “This can also be a sad time. It can be both.”

Connect with people

Going to Christmas parties can make some people feel anxious. Cindy suggests attending a social event where you’re not in the spotlight. If church is part of your lifestyle, attend a service.

“Go where people are gathering,” says Cindy. “You don’t have to necessarily make yourself a part of it, but it helps just to be around it.”

Eat and sleep well

The holidays are a time of indulgence. People expect to enjoy plenty of good food and drink, but Cindy says it’s important to be mindful of how much you eat, sleep and drink.

“Alcohol is a depressant. If you’re already depressed or already having anxiety, some people feel like a drink or two will help them get in a social mood. But after a while it starts to backfire.”

Put off the diet until after Christmas and have some forgiveness for yourself if you eat a little too much. Indulge with moderation.

Ask for help

It’s hard to admit you’re suffering when everyone else appears to be happy and festive, but it’s OK to not feel OK. If you or someone you know needs help, resources are available 24/7. Call the Mental Health Help Line at 1.877.303.2642, call Health Link at 811 or check 211 Alberta to find out what support is available.

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