Feeling low? Here’s how to look after your mind over the Christmas period

Written by Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.

For people dealing with low mood or depression, the festive season can be a particularly difficult time for a number of reasons. Here are some simple ways to make the Christmas period easier to deal with.

Feeling low during a period known as “the most wonderful time of the year” can be incredibly difficult. 

Whether you’re struggling with not being able to get into the season or are frustrated by the jovial spirits of everyone else, it can be an isolating and unsettling experience to feel such a stark difference between your mind and the world around you – especially when your family and friends are urging you to “cheer up”.

But depression, low mood and other mental health conditions don’t just disappear because it’s Christmas – and it’s OK to feel however you might be feeling, no matter what other people may say. 

“Mental illness doesn’t just vanish because of a day in the calendar, and we shouldn’t feel guilty about feeling sad whatever the season,” Jo Love, a mental health advocate and author of Therapy Is… Magic: An Essential Guide To The Ups, Downs And Life-Changing Experiences Of Talking Therapy, tells Stylist.

“Everywhere we look there is enormous added pressure on all of us to have a ‘picture perfect’ Christmas. We are bombarded with the image of the ideal Christmas everywhere we look, from adverts on TV, to the so-called ‘reality’ our social media feeds. 

“The images we see are often vastly different to our own realities and this disparity can easily make us feel as if we’ve failed and seriously affect our mood.”

“Mental illness doesn’t just vanish because of a day in the calendar, and we shouldn’t feel guilty about feeling sad whatever the season.”

Another big reason why people might experience worsened low mood or depression during the Christmas period is, as Love points out, the disparity between what we expect Christmas to be and what it actually is. 

For people who are feeling particularly lonely, the image of a ‘perfect Christmas’ with friends and family may make them feel even more alone.

And these feelings may be more widespread than you’d expect; according to research from the mental health charity Mind, one in three people are too embarrassed to admit they feel down and lonely at Christmas, with one in five people feeling like they have nowhere to turn for support.

While if you are experiencing persistent feelings of low mood or depression it is advised you visit your GP to seek help and explore your treatment options, there are a few simple steps you can take to manage your mental health and cope during the Christmas season. 

From staying away from social media to engaging with your local community, here are some methods to help you cope with low mood at Christmas. 

1. Nail the basics

Just because it’s Christmas, doesn’t mean you can’t make space for your usual self-care routine.

As obvious as it may sound, making sure you’re taking care of yourself during the festive season is incredibly important. If you’re travelling at Christmas and staying at a friend’s or family member’s house, keep in mind that your routine may be disrupted, and try to minimise that bump as much as you can.

For example, if your usual self-care routine for when you’re feeling particularly low involves taking yourself away and watching Netflix for a bit, you need to make sure you allow yourself to do those things if you need to, even when you’re away from home. 

It’s essential to prioritise the things that make you feel better – just because it’s Christmas, doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice the routine you’ve put in place to manage your mental health.

The same goes for the real basics, such as getting enough sleep, eating the right meals and monitoring how much you’re drinking. 

“As boring as it sounds, when we are struggling with our mental health the basics are vitally important for recovery,” Love says. “Make sure you get enough sleep; you’re drinking enough water and eating three proper meals a day. Set yourself small challenges, like getting up, showered, dressed, all of which sound simple but can be enormously difficult when suffering with depression, and make sure you celebrate those tiny victories too.”

She continues: “We spend so much of our time, effort and energy over the Christmas period making sure everyone else is having a good time, it is important to carve out a little bit of time for yourself. 

“Start small; it could be as simple as a couple of hours on the sofa with Netflix and a Chocolate Orange. And as much as you can, ignore the social and commercial pressure to celebrate in a certain way and concentrate on what the season means to you.”

2. Talk it out

When you’re feeling low and depressed during the Christmas season, it’s more important than ever to talk to those around you about what you’re going through. Instead of hiding yourself away and avoiding friends and family, try to reach out, help them to understand what you’re going through and lean on them for support.

Helplines such as the Samaritans (116 123) can provide free emotional support for anyone going through a difficult time, and their phone lines are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 

“Reach out if you’re feeling isolated and lonely or need support,” recommends Ella McCrystal, a psychotherapist and mindset coach. “Everyone needs a bit of help sometimes. It can be difficult to know how, or who, to ask, but the important thing is not to try to cope on your own”

Love agrees. “Admitting you’re feeling low is a huge step and shouldn’t be underestimated, but sometimes it can be really hard to share your feelings, particularly with those closest to you who might not understand.

“Sometimes those slightly on the outside of the family unit such as cousins or close friends can feel easier to approach, especially if there is someone who has been open about their own feelings in the past. 

“However, at times it can be easier to chat to a stranger and there are many brilliant helplines open over the Christmas period.”

3. Stay away from social media

Social media can be damaging for our mental health at the best of times, so during the festive period – when people are sharing highlights of their ‘perfect Christmas’ – it’s best to stay away.

“Limit your use of social media as everyone else always seem to be having more fun than you,” advises Dr Sarah Brewer, a medical nutritionist and health journalist. 

“Sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat can have a direct negative impact on feelings of loneliness, anxiety and low mood. In fact, studies have shown the more time people spend on Facebook, the lonelier and more dissatisfied they become with their own life.  

“On the other hand, people who limited their use of social media to 10 minutes per platform, per day, experienced significant reductions in loneliness and depression over a three week period than those who continued using social media as normal.”

4. Don’t over-commit

Setting boundaries at Christmas is key.

Many of us feel pressurised to say yes to every plan and invite we receive at this time of year, but it’s OK to say no to things you don’t want to do in order to protect your mental health.

“Prioritise the things you love doing and seeing the people who are really important to you and bring you joy,” says Dr Tom MacLaren, consultant psychiatrist at Re:Cognition Health. “It’s ok to turn down invitations and you don’t need to be the last man standing at every party! Don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure, prioritise the tasks and remember to be kind to yourself.”

Gemma Campbell, a counsellor and clinical content specialist at the digital mental health provider Kooth, echoes Dr MacLaren’s suggestion.

“The winter holidays can sometimes feel very full up, which can cause people to feel stressed and overwhelmed and increase that feeling of low mood,” Campbell explains. 

“If your festive calendar is filling up, and you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, it might be useful to think really carefully about what feels right for you.

“You don’t have to say yes to every invite and expectation. Sometimes saying no isn’t selfish. It’s sometimes about recognising your own boundaries and doing what feels right for you rather than pleasing everyone around you.”

5. Go outside

If you’re spending the Christmas period around lots of people, being inside can begin to feel a little suffocating. Beat this feeling by heading outside at least once a day to get some fresh air. It’ll also help you fight the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

“In the winter months, we don’t get enough sunshine and, as a result, we do not absorb enough vitamin D,” explains David Brudö, CEO and co-founder of mental wellbeing and self-development platform, Remente. 

“Try to go outside in the daylight whenever possible. You should also avoid wearing sunglasses (but never look directly at the sun) to get the most out of the light. Finally, when you’re indoors, keep your blinds open to let as much natural light in as you can.”

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health or emotional wellbeing, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ guide to local mental health helplines and organisations here.

If you are struggling, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected] for confidential support. In a crisis, call 999.

This article was originally published in 2019 and has since been updated throughout.

Images: Erin Aniker

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