Three things to do to support your mental health this Christmas
The festive season is, for many, a time of plenty – socialisng, food, booze, fun. But for many others it brings challenges as the life struggles cloud the horizon of their mental health.
Experts remind us to consider the expectations around this time of year and the difficulties those can produce. And they have strategies to help those of us finding times tough.
Three things to do to support your mental health this Christmas.Credit:iStock
“Whilst for some it’s a wonderful time, for others, it’s a really hard time of the year,” says Julie Borninkhof, CEO of perinatal anxiety and depression organisation PANDA.
“Many of us are struggling to make ends meet, and it’s a time when family connections can be fractured due to being in a heightened state."
Lead clinical advisor at Beyond Blue, Dr Grant Blashki, agrees.
“Families are a bit of a mix,” he says, “and people can regress into childhood ways of dealing with each other when they’re together again and drinking.”
So how to navigate a time that is simultaneously joyous and extremely stressful? Fortunately, there are ways to take care of your mental health and guard against specific stressors.
Avoidance is key (and if you can’t avoid, mentally prepare yourself)
It may sound harsh, but Dr Jared Cooney Horvath from the University of Melbourne believes avoidance is truly the best gift you can give yourself at Christmas.
“Christmas, at least for me, is a short-term stressor that I know is coming up, so I choose to go underground during this time,” he says. “Avoidance is really not a bad choice for this time of year, when a lot of people expect so much of you.”
He does, however, acknowledge this is not a practical solution for everyone, so his next best piece of advice is to plan ahead – and this includes preparing your mind to react to stressors in a certain way.
“To understand stress and its impact on the brain, it’s important to differentiate between emotions and feelings,” he says.
“Emotions are the physical sensations that course through the body in response to different events. Racing heart, butterflies in the stomach, tingling skin – these are emotions. Feelings, such as passion, embarrassment and pride, on the other hand, are the mental interpretation of these physical sensations.”
Emotions typically come first as we are faced with a new situation or event. Then, we assess what is happening and interpret what the physical emotions or sensations represent to select a relevant feeling, which will often trigger the release of certain chemicals to the brain.
Christmas, at least for me, is a short-term stressor that I know is coming up, so I choose to go underground during this time.
“Stress is a feeling and not an emotion, which means it is a mental interpretation of benign sensations that trigger the release of specific and potentially harmful chemicals into the brain,” Dr Horvath says.
“Because we select the feelings according to how we interpret physical sensations, re-labelling a formerly stressful sensation as exciting, positive or funny will shift the chemical response in your brain."
He says the visualisation of a stressful situation can help ease mental pressure and actually turn a previously unhappy occasion into a happy one.
"The brain treats imagination the same way as reality. So if you’re stressed about going to a Christmas gathering you can just practice how you’ll behave in your brain and when it comes to the real party, you’d have already been there many times."
If you're on your own, Dr Blashki says taking care of yourself during this time is essential.
“Make a plan about what you’re going to do around Christmas now, as it can be lonely,” he says. “Make yourself a Christmas package, spoil yourself a bit.”
Volunteering is also a good idea: “There are a lot of lonely people out there who would love company."
While finding time to exercise during the year’s arguably most busy and stressful time is difficult, moving your body really does influence your mental health in a positive way.
“There are a lot of lonely people out there who would love company."
Dr Horvath says a good exercise to help keep stress at bay is The Squat, which requires you to place your back against a wall and sit into a deep squat for 60 to 90 seconds.
“As you struggle to maintain this position, your muscles will burn off excess cortisol and you will begin to breathe deeply,” he says. “This ‘exhaustion’ alters sensations within your body allowing you to more easily select a new feeling.”
Aside from this, exercises such as swimming, running, jogging or riding a bike have been proven to reduce anxiety, depression and improve mood by increasing blood circulation to the brain.
Manage expectations (both your own and others’)
While it may seem like the world will end if the turkey isn’t perfectly roasted or the kids are disappointed with some of their gifts, Ms Borninkhof says “Christmas and summer holidays are a time when the principle of ‘near enough is good enough’ comes in".
“As a society, we have these huge expectations of Christmas as this wonderful, sparkly time where everyone’s dreams come true, and this really puts the pressure on.”
She says sharing the load, and not expecting “that you’re able to, or should, do it all” will make it better for everyone involved.
“Christmas and summer holidays are a time when the principle of ‘near enough is good enough’ comes in."
“Others want to be included and contribute, so don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help if you’re the one hosting,” Ms Borninkhof says.
Christmas and the holiday period can be particularly hard on those who already suffer from mental health issues, so for those who do, being kind to yourself is key.
And if you need to steel yourself for rowdy family members (we all have that uncle who likes to fight over politics) Dr Blashki suggest to not “overdo the alcohol”.
“Also have on hand a few neutral topics you can talk about, or perhaps even suggest an activity: sometimes playing board games or backyard cricket is better than just sitting around the table and talking about emotions,” he says.
For those who get stressed or don’t enjoy the socialisation that comes with the holiday period, Dr Blashki says: cut yourself a break.
“Go for a little while if it’s necessary, but don’t worry about being the life of the party,” he says.
“Beyond Blue also has online forums (which are moderated) if you need tips on how to cope with anything mental-health related.”
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
Source: Read Full Article