Dr T Ayodele Ajayi shares how to create a Christmas mental health self-care plan so you can manage the stress the season brings
Christmas is traditionally a season of goodwill, gifts, goofiness and glitter; however, the joy of Christmas is not a universal experience. Many can find it to be an emotionally challenging time for several reasons. The end of another year can herald a reminder of unachieved goals and unrealised dreams. It can bring up sad memories of loved ones who have been lost due to death, conflict or distance. Family reunions can be fraught with the complexities of managing difficult relationships. The financial pressures associated with inevitable Christmas expenses add more to the anguish that this season can create. Feelings of loneliness, anxiety, sadness, depression, and even suicidal thinking at its extremes are probable outcomes. Easy accessibility to alcohol (which is itself a potent mood depressant) and disruption of normal sleep rhythms introduce another layer of complication to the mix.
The ironic emotional turmoil associated with Christmas can be curtailed by careful planning. A review of past Christmas seasons can be a pivotal first step, as you can gain a lot of insight by reflecting on what has caused you angst in the past. 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 assertive – but gracious – and avoid any dramas or baits to pick a fight. By now most people know the potential flashpoints to avoid at their own family dinner table.
There are a few things to consider when addressing likely emotional triggers. Loneliness can be a precipitant for sadness and anxiety. You can find joy 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. So a few ideas to consider would be volunteering with the Salvation Army or serving Christmas dinner to the homeless via your local food bank or hostel. If you will be visiting family or spending Christmas away from home, forward planning with charitable service providers in the area weeks ahead of Christmas is a good idea. Christmas is a time of year when such services are low on volunteers and they can do with additional helping hands. Donating to a charity in honour of a departed loved one can also be uplifting. How about singing carols in a nursing or residential home, or reading Christmas stories to children in a hospice?
If you have a limited Christmas budget this year, placing a high premium on thoughtful, home-made gifts is an option to explore. Each year, the accumulation of consumer debts due to Christmas overspending results 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. It is always helpful to keep matters in perspective by remembering that Christmas is an annual event.
There is some research evidence to suggest there is a spike in the numbers of heart attacks and heart failures during 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 and grief that are prevalent in the season. Other contributory factors are a spike in excess drinking, excess food consumption, exposure to cold night-time temperatures (from being outdoors), 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 recommendations of the Department of Health, which is not more than 14 units weekly. If you are at risk of exceeding this limit, 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 to reflect, relax and re-energise during the festive period. Planning a daily walk, writing a gratitude journal and taking time to pray and contemplate the year ahead are all as crucial to emotional health as spending time with friends and family. Other activities you can plan for a soothing outlet can include listening to worship music, talking with confidants, enjoying hot baths, gardening, or cuddling a pet.
For those with a mental health condition, adherence to treatment, staying in touch with mental health service providers, and proactively seeking the local contact details of the service providers in the area you will be travelling to are highly recommended.
Let’s all make this Christmas a joyous and a fulfilling one.
Dr T Ayodele Ajayi MBChB FRCPsych is a consultant psychiatrist, founder and convenor of the Tripart Care Emotional Wellbeing Hub and has a YouTube channel called Tripart Care.