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Coping at Christmas - 5 top tips to look after your mental health

Clinical Psychologist, Amaryllis Roy, from Priory Hospital Bristol discusses the pressure that Christmas can put on mental health and shares five top tips to help you cope…

There is a scene in the cult 80s film ‘Flash Gordon’ when at the Emperor Ming’s wedding a plane drags a banner across the sky with the message ‘All citizens will make merry’. This is quickly followed by another plane with the message ‘On pain of death.’ During the festive season, the pressure to be seen to be having a good time can feel overwhelming if you are dealing with mental ill health and emotional difficulties. In addition, Christmas can bring lots of additional stresses such as travelling, eating more food, drinking more alcohol, family arguments, financial pressures and increased household work.

Here are five suggestions for ways to deal with the holiday period: 

1.  Avoid unhelpful social comparisons

Comparing ourselves with other people can have a big effect on how we feel. Sometimes this can be a good thing - motivating us to do better, when we think we can do as well as those we admire. However, if we don’t think we can be as good, it can have a negative impact on our self-esteem. Social media and consumer advertising can make this worse, and lead to a treadmill of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, especially at Christmas. Limiting exposure to social media and television advertising over the Christmas period can help this.

2.  Have realistic expectations about family gatherings

Years ago I attended a talk by the best-selling psychologist Dorothy Rowe, who has written many books on dealing with depression and mental wellbeing. Dr Rowe pointed out that we put special significance on Christmas as a ‘time for family’, perhaps because many modern families live far apart. Unfortunately, this expectation can place additional pressure on already strained relationships, particularly among people who do not see each other very often and are not used to spending so much time together. Being realistic about what you can expect from this time together will help avoid disappointment and arguments, which might then make it easier to heal family rifts.

3.  Participate in your local community

For some, Christmas can be a time of increased isolation. It can be particularly painful for those who have suffered bereavements. However, many organisations offer support at Christmas and finding out what is available in your local area may provide a lifeline. Local libraries, community centres and newspapers are good sources of information. Volunteering can be a good way of reducing loneliness and having a sense of purpose if you would otherwise be spending Christmas alone. The Samaritans provide free, confidential, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week support on 116 123. They also have local branches in many areas where you can drop in to speak to someone face-to-face. For more information visit:

4.  Take a break 

Allow yourself to take ‘time out’ if you find your stress levels rising. This could be a walk, going out for a coffee or listening to music - whatever will help you to relax or unwind. Of course this can be hard to do if you have domestic responsibilities – looking after children or feeling obligated to entertain visitors – so it can help to pre-plan. For example, arrange with your partner to take the kids out for a few hours to give you a break, or manage relatives’ expectations by saying that you have planned some ‘down time’ for everyone to do their own thing. Saying ‘no’ can be difficult if you feel pressured to join in with family parties, however setting limits is important for your own wellbeing. Sometimes having a ‘script’ can be helpful – recognising the other person’s position, but clearly stating your own preference. For example: ‘That sounds like a lot of fun, but I’m quite tired/not feeling 100% and would prefer to get an early night.’

5.  Everything in moderation

It can be tempting to over-indulge at Christmas both due to the availability of food and drink and as a way of covering up difficult feelings. However there are likely to be negative side-effects from guilt or feeling bloated and unwell, as well as the possibility of alcohol leading to increased emotions or interfering with prescribed medication. Try to avoid overindulgence and to do some exercise, outdoors if possible, as evidence increasingly suggests that outdoor activity can provide additional benefits to health and wellbeing.

For further information and support, see the following links:

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