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How can Christmas affect your mental health?

Christmas is traditionally a time of celebration, eating, drinking, spending time with family and friends, and generally enjoying the festive spirit. However, for those who struggle with a mental health condition, the yuletide season can be difficult. This year, things may be even more challenging as a result of government restrictions separating people from loved ones. Many will also be struggling with grief, financial stress and job uncertainty as a result of this year’s COVID-19 outbreak.

In this blog, we have outlined the impact that the festive period can have on your mental health, especially in relation to some of the most common mental health conditions that people may experience. We have also put together some tips for coping during a COVID Christmas, and how you can minimise its impact on your mental health.

Addictions and Christmas

It’s undeniable that one of the biggest features of this time of year is alcohol. It’s usually also a time for social gatherings, such as work Christmas parties, family get-togethers and New Year’s Eve events. However, despite much of this being largely absent from our lives this year, many people may still drink excessively as the season is intrinsically associated with alcohol. There have already been various reports of the general population’s alcohol intake increasing during the pandemic.

For people who are in recovery from addiction, the increase in temptation at this time of year can be extremely difficult to deal with. Alcohol may still seem to be everywhere, even if you can only socialise with a support bubble or over a Zoom call. It’s common for people to persuade each other to get ‘merry’ and have a drink with them, whether on a video chat or in person.

This is why it’s so important to take steps to stay sober and in control of your recovery over the festive period.

Top tips:

  • Try and spend your allowed socialising time with friends or family who are supportive of your recovery
  • Watch out for alcohol hidden in cakes and puddings
  • If you are attending even a small gathering where alcohol is being served, have a plan in place to leave the moment you start to feel uncomfortable
  • Remember that Priory offers a free addiction assessment, should you need professional help

Depression and Christmas

Society drums the idea into us that Christmas is a time of joy, laughter, cheerfulness and celebration. However, for people who struggle with depression, the constant reminder that you should be happy can make you feel even worse. Although all of our expectations around the season’s revelry are significantly changed this year, there may still be many who feel relief at the festive season being here and who try to encourage the idea that we all have an excuse to let our hair down.

The symptoms of depression, including intense sadness and feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, can be especially hard to deal with at Christmas, when everyone around you seems to be in a good mood. This can make you want to withdraw from other people – which, again, can be difficult during a season of goodwill and catch-ups with loved ones, whatever form they take.

If you have depression, it’s so important to be kind to yourself over the Christmas period, and try not to let other people’s high spirits make you feel even worse about yourself and your condition.

Top tips:

  • Speak to a family member or friend about how you’re feeling. It is often the case that a problem shared is a problem halved, and they may be able to shield you from the expectations of the season
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs - you may want to take these substances to try and make yourself feel better in the short-term, but in the long-term, they can make you feel a lot worse
  • Try and be positive - write down three positive things about your life every night before going to sleep and reflect on these when you wake up in the morning
  • Keep in touch with people – try organising or attending a Zoom call with friends or, if you can meet with a support bubble, do so safely. Keep an open mind about what you expect from this COVID Christmas, and you might find that you enjoy yourself

Anxiety and Christmas

Everything seems to be heightened and more intense at Christmas – from the music and lights to the traffic and crowds. This is particularly true during the pandemic, when supermarket and shopping centre queues have been notoriously anxiety-making. This can be daunting for most people, but especially if you struggle with anxiety.

People with social anxiety disorder may find the prospect of having to make an effort to see people, in person or over video, overwhelming. If you struggle with panic disorder, you may find that the intensity and frequency of your panic attacks increase at this time of year. Generalised anxiety disorder can mean that all of your usual worries are intensified during the festive period, and you may find that you’re anxious about a huge range of issues, meaning that you’re unable to relax.

Top tips:

  • Make a ‘problem list’ of all of your worries, and then try to tackle each one in turn rather than allowing yourself to become overwhelmed. Ask yourself: “what is the worst thing that could happen”?
  • Challenge your negative thoughts - ask yourself whether your anxious thought is a ‘fact’ or an ‘opinion’. If it’s an opinion, you may be getting anxious for nothing
  • Breathe! Whenever you’re feeling anxious, simply breathing in and exhaling, slowly and deeply, can help your body settle down to a more natural, resting state, and reduce your feelings of anxiety

Stress and Christmas

There’s no doubt about it; Christmas can be stressful. Cooking, buying presents, keeping children entertained, decorating your home, cleaning up after family gatherings – the list of tasks is endless. For people who struggle with chronic stress, this time of year can be overwhelming and exhausting.

There’s also the added pressure of financial worries and feelings of guilt if you can’t afford to buy your children or loved ones the presents that they really want. In 2020, many people have had to cope with the impact of the pandemic on employment, so if you’ve struggled with job loss or reduced hours, this may have added further pressure to the idea of buying presents.

Social media can also play a role in exacerbating your stress during the holiday season, as comparing yourself to others’ seemingly ‘perfect’ Christmas Days can leave you feeling like a failure for not having the best decorations, tree, food or presents.

Overall, the festive season can be a major catalyst for stress, which is why it’s so important to take steps to look after yourself and try to minimise this.

Top tips:

  • Stop trying to please everyone – it’s okay if you don’t try to be everywhere or do everything
  • Set yourself a budget for Christmas shopping and stick to it
  • Spread out your diary – try and schedule video calls with people you haven’t seen for a while in January, so that in December you can focus on seeing the select households the government allow you to
  • Take a break from social media and stop comparing yourself to others

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and Christmas

For people who struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the change in routine and the general level of activity that goes on at Christmas can make your symptoms even worse.

For example, if you experience obsessions that centre on germs and contamination, coming into contact with more people over the festive period, and being in different surroundings such as other people’s houses, can make these intrusive thoughts more frequent and severe. The threat of these feelings are bound to feel even greater in 2020, when we’ve all spent the year carefully washing our hands and keeping our distance.

Similarly, if you experience irrational beliefs that you are going to harm another person or say something inappropriate, these intrusive thoughts may be heightened due to being in more social situations, however small they are. Even talking to our closest friends or family can feel nerve-wracking to many of us after spending so much more time in our own company, or with those in our household.

If your OCD compels you to make sure that certain objects are arranged in specific ways, the general change in your usual environment can worsen this, due to Christmas decorations, presents and wrapping. It may also be heightened if you have people in your bubble visiting and potentially rearranging things.

Top tips:

  • Talk to a relative or friend about how you’re feeling, and agree on ways in which they can support you throughout the Christmas period
  • Eat as healthily as possible, make sure you get plenty of rest, and surround yourself with positive influences
  • Try and let your intrusive thoughts pass you by, without becoming overwhelmed by them. Also, try to challenge your negative beliefs and the meanings you attach to your obsessions and compulsions. These are some of the techniques used in mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)– two of the most effective ways of treating OCD

Seek help

Christmas is exhausting, and can be overwhelming for all of us. However, if you find that the pressures of a COVID Christmas are getting too much, and are having a negative impact on your health and wellbeing, it’s important to seek specialist help.

Our expert teams of psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, nurses and other mental health professionals at Priory are dedicated to helping you every step of the way towards overcoming your difficulties, and enjoying the festive season as much as possible.

Get in Touch Today

For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0800 280 8182 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

Get in Touch Today

For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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