Mental Health at Christmas

14 mins read

Welcome to day 1 of the Brig Advent Calendar 2022!

Despite continued assertions that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, it can also be an inescapably difficult time for many of us. Particularly for anyone with pre-existing mental health conditions, a difficult family, or first-year students, Christmas might not be the festive fun time it is expected to be. Let’s take a look at a few reasons you or those around you might find it a particularly hard time of year, and then some top ways you can take charge and look after your mental health at Christmas.

Why do we need to take special care of our mental health at Christmas?

  • Christmas is really worshipped in the western world as a time for family, food, and presents. This pressure and expectation to have fun can really get under the skin and lead to a sense of gloom. The idea that everyone else is having the best time while you’re feeling sad and lonely can really be a self-fulfilling prophecy of disappointment for many.
  • Families are complicated. TV might be fond of the parents-and-2.5-kids happy family trope, but nothing could be further from the truth for many. More than half of those under 30 have at least one step-relative in America. Navigating family dynamics as you’re growing up and finding your own personhood is challenging at the best of times. At Christmas, there are competing demands, lots of people in a small space, extended families, and enforced fun. Definitely not peaceful.
  • Student life is well known as a time of budgets, but simply not having much money doesn’t automatically remove the obligation we may feel to spend. Travelling, buying gifts, office Christmas lunches… it adds up, and with the added cost of living crisis cranking the price of simply heating the home, money is a huge source of stress at the end of the year.
  • Covid-19 and the associated lockdowns and precautions mean that many of us haven’t had a ‘traditional’ Christmas for a few years, and now things look like they might be getting back to normal (whatever that might be for you), it can feel profoundly weird to be expected to go back to spending Christmas as though it’s 2019. A lot of people will have developed their own traditions and to have your family dropped like a cat among pigeons into your life again can evoke some serious emotions.
snowy forest
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  • Pretty much every first-year student experiences a significant degree of ‘strangeness’ when they go home for the holidays in their first term. You’ve just spent months finding your feet, being your own master, and having complete independence. The conflict going home can evoke is huge. On one hand, most of us are very ready for a dinner cooked for us but on the other hand, it can feel stifling to be suddenly beholden to other people’s rules again. You will likely have changed and grown as a person in a way you won’t even recognise yourself until someone tries to fit you back into your old skin.
  • If you have a toxic or abusive home life and choose to stay at university for Christmas, it can be very stressful and tiresome to constantly evade the questions, to feel the need to explain yourself to people, and to try and maintain your distance while it seems that everyone is pushing for family time and giving chances. People can often see traditions as an excuse to stop boundaries, and keeping them up is exhausting.
  • If you have a pre-existing mental health condition or are neurodivergent, the changes that are associated with Christmas can be overwhelming. Lights and music everywhere, altered routines, friends no longer around when you expect them to be, parties to attend. It’s a minefield.
Image Credit: Priory Group

There are naturally a ton more reasons why your mental health may need a little extra TLC at Christmas time, as well as the simple fact that our mental health is as fragile and unpredictable as our physical health. Just like getting a cold when you’re on holiday in the summer, you might just have a period of bad mental health at Christmas.

Ways you can look after your mental health at Christmas:

  • Make time for yourself. This definitely sounds like a cop-out answer but it absolutely can’t be overstated how important it is to take some time for yourself. Even if it’s Christmas Day and there are ten people waiting for plates of turkey, when you feel overwhelmed, taking even just one minute for yourself can work wonders. Ideally, you’d have a private bedroom to retreat to, but going out for a walk (or a run if that’s your cup of tea), sitting in the car, or even just locking yourself in the bathroom while you count to ten and taking a deep breath can be very grounding. Prioritising your own well-being can be your gift to yourself in 2022.
  • Make a list and a budget. If money worries are affecting your mental health at Christmas, having a firm list of your expected expenditure over the holidays can give you a much clearer idea of how much you have to spend on luxuries, including gifts. Repeat after me – it is more important to pay rent than buy your family gifts. It’s a situation most people will empathise with at least, and it’s surprising how far a card with a thoughtful, heartfelt message can go. Tell someone you love them with words instead of objects.
  • Think about your needs in advance. If you experience panic attacks, for example, think about what might trigger them and what you need to get through them. Make sure you always have what you need with you, and if it’s possible, tell someone you’re spending the holidays with how they can help you. These conversations can be difficult, so do it however is easiest for you, even if that’s a text before you arrive. It might be hard for some people, especially older relatives who are more set in their ways, to understand, but this is about meeting your medical needs – equate it to a diabetic who needs to explain insulin to their housemates and you’ll see its importance. If people are likely to ask you questions you’ll find hard to answer, consider coming up with some answers in advance so you know exactly how to respond and don’t feel caught off-guard.
person holding a ceramic mug cup
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  • Mark off the “start” and “end” of Christmas. If you find the whole period difficult to cope with, defining when it begins and ends can help with reminding yourself that it won’t last forever, there is a light at the end of the tinsel tunnel. Budget your time and energy around obligations, and keep facing forwards. It might help to plan something fun you can look forward to in January, or even between Christmas and the new year.
  • Don’t neglect your basic needs. A lot of routines get paused over the holidays, and many of us forget how detrimental that can be to our mental health. The two most important ones to remember are your sleep schedule and exercise. We’ve all accidentally become a bit nocturnal before, and there’s no shame in using the holidays as an opportunity for some long lie-ins, but take stock of how it’s making you feel. A lie-in might not be worth it if you feel bad for wasting the few hours of sunlight available. If you take part in sports during term time and suddenly feel miserable and sluggish when on holiday, try fitting in the equivalent amount of exercise. Jogging isn’t ever going to be as fun as playing hockey or football, but your body is likely missing the workout. It might even miss the ten-minute walk from the front door to the bus stop – a stroll around the block is worth a try.
  • Practice moderation. Christmas is usually thought of as a time of excess, but it’s (as per usual) not as simple as just enjoying a stack of mince pies. For starters, alcohol is a depressant and can have a really severe impact on mental health, especially if you’re already feeling low. Don’t be afraid to stick to soft drinks. Eating plenty of Christmassy treats isn’t inherently bad but it’s important to know yourself. Don’t eat so much you feel sick, or end up bloated and gassy. Know your own limits and be firm about sticking to them.
  • Manage expectations. Something that is sadly quite common is a couple (or even a group of close friends) who are apart from each other for Christmas for the first time don’t take time to set and manage expectations beforehand. Does your beloved have a jam-packed schedule and will be kept from their phone for most of the day? Is your gaming group hoping to get in a few games over the break? Even knowing in advance that you can’t make it can feel better than finding out retroactively you couldn’t join in.
  • Know how to get help and support. The Samaritans are open 24/7 and have a freephone number – 116 123 – and are there to talk to about any problems you’re having. Or if you prefer to text, you can use the SHOUT crisis text service, just text SHOUT to 85258 – this is also a free, anytime service. If you think you might need them, save them to your phone or write them on a note and put it somewhere safe. Build yourself a crisis card with numbers and contacts you can reach out to if you need to. Have a look at Mind’s useful contacts page and make a note of any that seem useful.

Hopefully, these tips will help you keep on top of your mental health over the oncoming festive period. Find out more about the hormones that feature in your mental health if you’re curious about the biology, and share your favourite self-care mental health tips with us on Twitter @brignewspaper because what works for you might work for others too.

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