Dr T. Ayodele Ajayi shares how to cope with the challenges the Christmas/New Year season brings by having a Christmas mental health self-care plan
Christmas is traditionally a season of goodwill, gifts, goofiness and glitter. The joy of Christmas, however, is not a universal experience, and Christmas can be an emotionally challenging time for many for several reasons. The end of another year can be a reminder of unachieved goals and unrealised dreams. It can resurrect sad memories of loved ones who have been lost to death, conflict or distance. Family reunions can be fraught with the complexities of managing difficult relationships, and the financial pressure associated with inevitable Christmas expenses adds more to the anguish this season can create. Feelings of loneliness, anxiety, sadness, depression, and even suicidal thinking at its extremes are probable outcomes. The easy accessibility to alcohol (which is itself a potent mood depressant) and disruption of normal sleep rhythms introduce another layer of complexity into the mix.
The ironic, emotional turmoil associated with Christmas can be curtailed by careful planning, and a review of past Christmas seasons can be a pivotal first step. Reflecting on what has caused you angst in the past can be insightful. For example, do you have a budget in place for your spending? Which family member or friend tends to be unkind in their manners or comments? How do you aim to deal with that? A good plan is to be intentionally kind and gracious, and to avoid any dramas or baits to pick a fight. By now, most people know the potential hot-point themes to avoid at their own family dinner table.
There are a few things to consider when addressing potential emotional triggers. Loneliness can be a precipitant for sadness and anxiety, but joy can be found outside the traditional activities by keeping busy through selfless giving. There is sufficient research to back the notion that acts of kindness reduce anxiety and depression in the giver. A few ideas to consider are volunteering with the Salvation Army; singing carols in a nursing or residential home; reading Christmas stories to children in a hospice; or serving Christmas dinner to the homeless via your local food bank or hostel. If you’ll be visiting family or spending Christmas away from home, it’s a good idea to liaise with the charitable service providers in the area you’ll be visiting. Do this weeks ahead of Christmas. Donating to a charity in honour of a departed loved one can also be uplifting.
If your Christmas budget is limited this year, putting a high premium on thoughtful, home-made gifts is an option to explore. Each year consumer debts are accumulated on account of Christmas overspending, resulting in a spike in feelings of anxiety and depression early in the new year. Rethinking Christmas — with the reminder that love, kindness, courtesy, empathetic listening, quality time and goodwill are among the presents we can offer — can be liberating. Christmas is an annual event, and it is always worth remembering to keep this in perspective.
Research has suggested there is a spike in the number of heart attacks and heart failures around the Christmas season, peaking on Christmas Eve. One study found a 37% increased risk on Christmas Eve and a 20% increased risk on New Year’s Eve. The plausible reasons are the stress, anger, anxiety, sadness, grief that are prevalent in the season. The other factors considered as contributory are a spike in excessive drinking, excessive food consumption, exposure to cold, night-time temperatures (from being outside), and sleep deprivation. The point here is that physical self-care is equally as important as mental health self-care during the festivities. If you drink, set a limit within the healthy recommendation by the Department of Health, which is not more than 14 units weekly. If you are at risk of going overboard, agreeing a prompt or check from a spouse, family member or friend is a good way to plan ahead.
It is key to factor in some downtime to be alone so you can reflect, relax and re-energise during the festive period. Planning a daily walk, keeping a gratitude journal and making time to pray and contemplate the year ahead are as crucial to emotional health as spending time with friends and family. Other activities, such as listening to worship music, talking with confidants, enjoying hot baths, gardening, or cuddling a pet, can also provide a soothing outlet and should be scheduled into your day.
For those with a mental health condition, it is expedient to adhere to your treatment; stay in touch with mental health service providers; and proactively seek the local contact details of service providers in the area you will be travelling to.
Let’s all make this Christmas a joyous and a fulfilling one.
Dr T. Ayodele Ajayi MBchB FRCPsych is a consultant psychiatrist, founder and convener of the Tripart Care Emotional Wellbeing Hub and has a YouTube channel called TriPart Care.