Friday, January 8, 2016
Happy Holidays? Managing Mental Health This Christmas
With Christmas fast approaching, many people will be starting to get into the holiday spirit. But while for some it is a season of fun, family and festive cheer, for others it can be a painful time of year. Of course depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses can occur at any time but studies show that the social, financial and emotional pressure associated with the Christmas holidays can lead many people to feel isolated, stressed and lonely. With approximately 10 million Americans also suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) it is not hard to see how negative feelings can creep in this Christmas. If you know someone who suffers from mental health problems or if you yourself have been feeling blue in the run up to the holidays, here are some things to consider.
Why does Christmas exacerbate mental health problems?
Christmas is a notoriously family orientated time of year and for those who don't have any immediate friends or family it can be very isolating. One Canadian study showed that the main complaint of those who sought emergency psychiatric help through the Christmas period was feelings of loneliness. Even those who do have a support network close by may be reluctant to participate in large family gatherings or structured work events because the pressure to socialise, conform and be seen to be enjoying themselves is too much for them. And for those who have been bereaved or gone through a family breakdown, it can be a painful reminder of happier times.
It can also be a tough time for those in recovery from addiction or eating disorders as the relaxed attitude towards eating, drinking and celebrating in excess can mean triggers are all around them. As a recovering addict it is important to be honest with those around you if you feel uncomfortable or close to relapse. And for the family of recovering addicts, being mindful of their condition is important but it isn't always necessary to completely ban alcohol from the house as this can create feelings of tension that may make them feel like the spotlight is on them.
Does this mean the risk of suicide increases?
There is a popular misconception that rates of suicide go up during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays however studies reveal that this is not the case. December actually has one of the lowest rates of suicide attempts throughout the year with the period just before Christmas having the fewest suicide attempts of all. While this is positive news, there has been a noted spike in suicide in January. Research suggests that around Christmas time families unite and charities make a well publicised attempt to reach out to those suffering with mental illness. With all of this support and the promise of a merry Christmas, sufferers may start to feel positive about the festive season and hopeful for a fresh start in the new year. But often this vision can be somewhat of an anti climax in reality and when the new year comes around and things remain unchanged, it can feel like an overwhelming disappointment that is too much to bear. This is why it is very important for family, friends and outreach programs to extend their support into the new year and beyond.
How can I be more positive this Christmas?
If you are suffering depression, anxiety or other mental illness over the Christmas period it is important to practice self care and be kind to yourself. Try not to completely withdraw socially but equally don't put pressure on yourself to stay in social situations where you feel uncomfortable. Practice healthy living by eating a nutritional well balanced diet and getting plenty of exercise. A brisk walk outdoors will get your blood pumping and increase the release of dopamine, serotonin and other feel-good brain chemicals that can help ease tension and promote feelings of calmness and positivity.
Many people manage stress through meditation and this can be particularly helpful during the Christmas period when tensions are running high. Take time out each day to relax, breath and decompress. Similarly try and be mindful of the enjoyable things associated with Christmas – the smell of a Christmas tree, the taste of your turkey lunch, the warmth of the fire. Focus on these small things and find peace in the moment.
Why not spend some time giving back over the holidays? Many charities are looking for volunteers to help out in homeless shelters or soup kitchens. Or create a gift package for less fortunate families. Simply visiting an elderly neighbour and spreading some festive cheer can really help you to feel good about yourself so giving to others is potentially the best gift you can also give yourself.