Christmas is a time of year dedicated to joyful celebrations. However, for many people, the festive season can be ruined by run-ins with not-so-lovely relatives, overindulgence, too much alcohol, stress, or loneliness. All these things can lead to unhappiness at this time of the year.
It’s helpful to recognise that if you struggle at Christmas, you’re certainly not alone. Around 30% of British people say their mental health declines at Christmas. And as many as 70% find the burden of making Christmas special negatively affects their mental health.
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Triggers for mental health problems and stress at Christmas
Before looking at ways to protect your mental health at Christmas, let's look at some of the common triggers for stress during this period. These include:
- Spending time at parties and family gatherings you’d rather not attend
- Financial stress due to hosting social events, buying gifts, and travelling
- Dealing with feelings of loneliness
- Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the dark winter months
Christmas can be easier if you prepare. Being clear about your boundaries and communicating to others what you are and are not willing to do can minimise stress. You must make time for self-care and avoid succumbing to self-comparison on social media.
Top tips for taking care of your mental health at Christmas
Planning ahead and being gentle with yourself at this time of year are helpful ways to reduce stress and take care of your mental health over the holiday season. Making time for self-care and regularly exercising to maintain good physical health also supports better mental health.
Addressing the common triggers for a stressful Christmas well before they arise puts you in the best position to protect your well-being over the festive period. Try these top tips for reducing stress and supporting your health this Christmas.
1. Reduce financial stress
If you can't financially handle hosting a party or giving a lot of gifts, don't. There are other ways to celebrate over the festive period that don't require a substantial financial commitment.
Give yourself a budget and stick to it. Suggest a Secret Santa for family members or only buy gifts for children and young people. Putting together thoughtful hampers for families instead of buying individual gifts is another way to reduce the cost of Christmas.
2. Be realistic about family gatherings
If you're stressed because relationships with certain family members are complicated, decide how much time you'll spend with them over the holiday season. Either agree to see them for a limited time or choose not to see them.
Who you spend Christmas time with is up to you. Choose to surround yourself with people you like and enjoy, or consider volunteering on Christmas Day to help others and preserve your mental well-being.
3. Positively address feelings of loneliness
The pressure to spend time with family and friends at Christmas can make some of us feel even more lonely than at other times. Maybe loved ones have died, or your social life isn't great. Whatever the reason, acknowledging your feelings is the first step to doing something positive about them.
One of the best ways to address loneliness is to focus on something else, like helping others. Trying new things and getting involved with community groups are other ways to manage feelings of loneliness. Our article 6 ways to avoid feeling lonely at Christmas has other actionable suggestions to help combat loneliness at this time of year.
4. Take some time out
With so much focus on spending time with others, it is easy to forget about ourselves. However, taking time to reflect on how you are feeling, set intentions for the festive season or new year, or taking a break from the festivities is good for your self-esteem. Moments of solitude are great for your mental well-being if you choose them.
5. Talk about how you are feeling
Letting others know how you feel can help relieve some of the discomfort and anxiety about it. If there isn't anyone you feel comfortable chatting to in person, consider connecting with others through mental health apps or speaking with your NHS doctor. Your GP will be able to signpost you to other support services too.
Instant stress busters and mood enhancers
If you feel a bout of intense stress or notice you are starting to feel low, the best way to deal with it is to tackle the underlying cause. The second best way is to put yourself in a good mood and deal with underlying causes later. Some of the tactics you can use to improve your mood include:
- Do a cardio workout lasting at least 15-20 minutes to get a "runner's high" (endorphins get released)
- Attend a comedy show or watch an uplifting film
- Spend some time in nature - walk in the countryside, watch the waves at the beach or wander in the woods
- List all the things you're grateful for (what's working in your life right now)
- Complete a task mindfully or try meditation
- Go for a brisk walk to increase your heart rate
- Eat well - getting the proper nutrients supports a happier mood and prevents health conditions
- Volunteer for a local charity or community organisation
We spoke to Susan Aitken from So Happy in Town, who told Health Times: "Many of us feel the pressure to create the 'perfect' Christmas which, let's face it, is humanly impossible. Remind yourself that perfect doesn't exist, no matter how many picture perfect pictures you see on Instagram of families in matching onesies, glowing with rosy cheeks in their beautifully decorated homes.
"These pictures are not real and only make us all feel inadequate. Why not give yourself a digital detox - I always find this helps me at this time of year, and remember to focus on the important things like making time for yourself everyday.
"This can be as little as 10 minutes to read or write in your journal or meditate - whatever helps you to relax and de-stress and just have some time for you.
"And please remember that if the fairy lights don't work or all the Christmas trees have sold out this year, the world will keep turning. All that matters is that you look after yourself and your loved ones."
Protecting your mental health at Christmas
Getting out of your own head and focusing on how you can help others is another excellent way to protect your mental health and improve your well-being at any time of the year. Choosing to help others switches your focus from what you don't have to how you can improve someone else's life. This boosts your self-esteem and feelings of worth.
Many charities need more volunteers around Christmas time. Consider volunteering with the Samaritans so they can keep their helpline open or giving time to a homelessness charity so you can enjoy the festive season with others.
Whatever you plan to do to protect your mental health this Christmas, remember to put yourself first! We're better able to take care of the people around us and enjoy our lives when we care for ourselves.
Whatever your circumstances, we hope you can have a stress-free, relaxing Christmas!