We are, at the moment, slowly progressing towards the end of the Christmas season, a period which unfortunately is not always the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ for everybody. For those with certain mental health conditions, it is often seen as a couple of weeks’ worth of challenges, upsets and ultimately fear- a period they would much rather avoid completely, and definitely not something to celebrate.
I have two motivations for writing this article. The first is to raise the level of awareness in and around mental health- particularly at a time of the year when everyone is so focused on their own ‘joy’ and ‘happiness’ meaning that of other people’s can be forgotten. My second motivation is to give some suggestions for methods of coping or distraction for those who find themselves experiencing any of the negative feelings that I mention.
When we think of Christmas, one of the first things that comes to mind is food. Christmas is ultimately a Christian feast day (emphasis on the word feast). In today’s society, food has always been a popular method of celebration. Whilst the prospect of mountains of Yorkshire puddings, lashings of gravy, and box after box of purple Quality Streets is exciting for many, this is clearly going to be a bit of a jump from the comfort zone of those suffering from eating disorders.
People find themselves face to face with numerous challenges, from a lack of routine, to having to eat in front of others, to having portions controlled by somebody else. These come before we even begin thinking about the food itself. Whilst many may believe that such a break in routine could be beneficial to those struggling with such a problem, in reality it often only serves to increase the perception of fear surrounding food. It could even kick start some harmful reactionary behaviours such as binge eating.
Food is not something that can really be avoided at Christmas time, but there are ways to manage the stress associated with it. Maintaining a healthy exercise routine during the festive period, along with planning meals in advance, or choosing alternative food options are all methods that could be used to mitigate the negative associations. It is important to still feel, and believe, that you are in control, and that you alone have the power to make a choice about what you eat.
A massive part of Christmas is returning to your home town and spending a large amount of time catching up with family and friends. Unfortunately, the act of socialising itself can often be seen as a daunting or even threatening task for some of us. It has the potential to provoke anxieties about the need to converse with people for long periods of time, finding yourself in overly crowded venues, and having little time for breathers in between social events.
Although we all love our distant relatives and friends, spending long amounts of time with people with whom you are not particularly well-acquainted, can be both exhausting and mentally tiring. This can only be worsened by the pressure surrounding these events. Christmas and New Years are the only events of the year when there is some sort of unspoken obligation to be with other people, and even more importantly to be having a good time. The consequence of avoiding a social activity may provoke comments and curiosity from other people, or worse, a sense of failure and incapacity in yourself.
Whilst Christmas is definitely a time to be with others, it is definitely not necessary to have company every second of the day. A five minute break here or there may help to avoid stress or anxiety building up. Be sure to make use of times when it is easy to be alone such as early mornings, and do not hesitate to decline invitations if you feel the stress from its anticipation will outweigh the positive effects of spending time with other people.
As I said earlier, we all recognise Christmas as a time of reunion with family and friends. A period of reminiscing, but also reflection on how much has changed. Unfortunately however we’ve all had that conversation with the great-aunt we’ve never seen before, telling us how much weight we’ve lost (or put on!). Then coupled with the older-sister-of-the friend-of-the-second cousin boasting about how well her child is doing at uni (they’re the same age as you didn’t you know!).
There is also often additionally an element of comparison present in our own thoughts (that girl left school at the same time as me and yet she’s got a house and a car and a job and I’m sitting here on a gap year trying to prepare myself to head back to education). Comparison is something we do naturally all the time. During Christmas however, we find ourselves in a concentrated environment of people who we see as suitable to compare ourselves to, leading to a vicious cycle of negative feelings towards both ourselves and others.
Comparison will forever be a futile activity but instead of comparing yourself to others try to evaluate how you yourself have changed over the past year. If it has not been a particularly good year- try and work out why. Use it as a self-motivating activity, and a method of creating resolutions to ensure that next year you can look back on a progression as opposed to feeling negative about yourself. Always remember that the only reason for reflecting on the past is to learn how to change the future.
The final point I would like to touch upon with regards to why people tend to find the holiday season more scary than merry, is that of a lack in routine. In an earlier section, I mentioned a dietary routine- but additionally the lack of work (be it a job or studies), could lead to a lack in purpose, and a consequent lack in motivation. This is intensified with disruption to a normal routine caused by things such as travel and late night social events. Sometimes this could cause stress, sometimes it encourages other behaviours – from staying in bed longer than necessary, to not leaving the house at all. Whilst it is important to relax, it is more important to not lose the motivation to function like a normal human being.
To prevent the despondency that could arise from a lack in routine- the simple answer would be to keep a routine. Yes, perhaps the routine would be a different one from the one you are used to during the year, but it is still possible to dedicate your time to other activities- perhaps those that you don’t normally have the chance to do. It is extremely important to continue leaving the house, even if there is no reason to. Have a wander or visit a friend’s house perhaps. Your time does not need to be mapped out to the minute, but having no urgent activities should not result in a complete lack of functioning.
The Christmas period is not and never will be the only difficulty for sufferers of mental illness meaning that unfortunately these problems do not disappear when the tree does. However, having an awareness of how the season could affect sufferers of mental illness is important – especially when everyone appears to be having so much fun. Surprisingly enough, Christmas is often seen as a lonely period- a season filled with the intention of goodwill, but often lacking in the time it takes to give it. Christmas is a holiday period and this sometimes means the support and guidance too takes a holiday.
You don’t have to be the listening ear, or the shoulder to cry on this Christmas time, but be the person who is aware, the person who makes one small aspect a little bit easier, and another’s Christmas a whole lot happier.
For more information about Mental Health Conditions or to find out where you can find support and guidance please see Mind.