Protecting Your Mental Health at Christmas

Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. I love the music, the food, the gifts and the chilly weather and nothing lifts my mood quite like a good Christmas movie. I’m the girl in the office who initiates the Secret Santa, wears reindeer antlers to work and brings a real-life Christmas tree in to sit at my desk.

But I’m also the girl who stays up until 1am crying as her brain tries to destroy her. I’m the girl who sits in front of her Christmas tree wondering just how much her OCD will kick in on Christmas Day. I’m the girl who had a panic attack in the shower during a visit to a magical Christmas cabin. Unfortunately, mental illness does not go on Christmas vacation. It sticks around during both our lowest moments and our highest and the festive season is no exception.

There’s a lot of expectation that comes with celebrating the holidays. We’re expected to be jolly, cheerful, merry and light, and everything we do should be glowing with festive joy. The month of December is lit with fairy lights and snowflakes and glossy shiny paper, and we’re expected to soak up every single moment of it. And for the most part, we do. But mental illness can turn those good-willed expectations into a test of strength as we struggle to stay happy and centred during the best time of the year

For me personally, I find that my mental health is naturally better during the autumn and winter months. Spring and summer bring heatwaves and holidays and inescapable plans that can send my OCD spiralling – whereas the cooler months keep me safely wrapped up inside, with chilly walks and gentle rain to calm my worries and nerves. But this year, after struggling with some of the worst mental health episodes of my life, I’m finding it hard to hold onto that sense of calm and warmth that I love about the season.

So in this week’s blog post, I wanted to share some of my advice for both protecting and paying attention to your mental health over the festive period, and give you my tips for putting your mind first in this busy time.

Stay Organised

I envy the soul who isn’t busy at Christmas. I’m always constantly running out of time to get things finished, whether it’s a project for work, a shopping list, a decoration project or a festive activity. There are always more presents to buy, cards to write, friends to see and plans to make – alongside actually enjoying the festive season. But staying organised and structured is a great way to stop your Christmas plans from spiralling out of control.

At the start of December (or late November if you’re an early bird), make a big to-do list of everything Christmas related you need to do. Write down the presents you need to buy, any baking you have to do, food to prep, parties to attend, work functions to plan, social media posts to share, charities to donate to…Every activity that you associate with Christmas on a yearly basis.

Now break them up into different categories. Sort them into manageable chunks of Things To Buy, Things To Cook, Things To Make, Things to Decorate, People to See, Places to Go, etc… until your list is looking a little less stressful and a little more achievable.

Then simply pop them into your planner or calendar to figure out the best days to get each list accomplished. Of course, these plans may change but so long as you have a rough idea of what to do when, you can start to work out when you can afford some time for yourself. Block out a few hours or days just for you, to meditate, carry out some self-care, shut off from the world or do some positive mental health activities by yourself. This is so helpful for allowing you to actually enjoy the holiday season without feeling overwhelmed or too busy to relax.

Take Some Anti-Christmas Breaks

Whilst there is a lot of beauty to be found in Christmas, hearing the same ten songs played over and over again and bumping your head on the front door wreath twice a day can get pretty old. The noise, the colours, the overwhelming cheer can feel like a lot after spending months in lockdown or self-isolating this year. Create a space just for you where you can escape Christmas for a little while. Find a spot without any decorations, any fairy lights, any festive candles and just exist in that zone for an hour or so.

Read a book about the middle of summer. Watch a tv show about camping in spring. Let your mind escape into a different space for a while and give it a break from the relentless merriment of December. This is a great way to help de-stress and de-clutter your thoughts, giving yourself that much-needed pause to start again refreshed.

Learn To Say No

There comes a point with every mental illness where you have to learn to say no. Sometimes it can be putting up a boundary between you and a friend that triggers your anxiety. Sometimes it can be an activity that makes you feel stressed and unsafe. Sometimes it can be a conversation that you know will affect your depression. To protect our own sense of self, we have to learn to say no to the people in our lives and stand up for our mental health.

The same rule applies at Christmas. If spending 8 hours on a cramped bus to visit distant family members is going to be bad for your mental health, it’s time to say no. If you know that taking on another craft fair and PTA event is going to cause you anxiety, say no. If spending time in a large shopping centre full of people and potential COVID spreaders is making you uncomfortable, say no and shop online! If sitting at a table full of food during your recovery from an eating disorder is keeping you awake at night, say no and find an alternative way to enjoy your Christmas dinner.

You are the only person who knows exactly what will trigger you – whether it’s a certain family member, a certain food, a travel plan or an outdated tradition. You can and you should say no to the expectations that make you unhappy, even if it ruffles a few feathers to do so. In the season of kindness and goodwill, we should all learn to be more accommodating of the boundaries established around us.

Don’t Ignore The Signs

Christmas can be a great distraction from the hardships of life. We can escape into jolly songs and Christmas parties and mulled wine and mince pies, forgetting to take care of ourselves in the process. But if keeping a routine and carrying out mental health self-care is something that keeps you stable, it’s so important to maintain your progress.

It’s ok to pause the Christmas film to take a meditation break. It’s ok to fill out your CBT sheets before writing your Christmas lists and it’s ok to say no to that glass of champagne if it’s going to mess with your meds. Recently I spent a weekend away and I convinced myself it would be ok to finish off a bottle of red wine whilst taking the highest possible dosage of anxiety medication. It ended with vomiting, tears, panic attacks and guilt that almost ruined our trip.

If your anxiety, depression, OCD or any other mental health disorder is giving you the signs to slow down or to pay attention to your mind, don’t ignore it in favour of a good party or an overindulgence. Listen to it instead and give it the help it needs.

Don’t Feel Guilty For Your Mental Health

As stated in the intro, mental illness doesn’t abide by the rules of calendars and seasonal wishes. It’s there on birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and vacations whether you like it or not. So it’s important not to be too hard on yourself if your mental illness affects you throughout the festive season.

If your depression creeps up on you on Christmas morning, don’t make yourself feel worse by fighting it or getting angry at your illness. Simply accept that you feel low and do your best to enjoy the day for yourself. Drag a duvet downstairs and do what you can throughout the day. If you have a panic attack during the presents, breathe through it and rest until you feel ready to try again – the gifts aren’t going anywhere.

It’s also important not to take on the responsibility of other people’s enjoyment. Your mental illness should not be the deciding factor between a good Christmas holiday and a bad one for everyone around you- other people can be responsible for their own happiness, whilst still caring for you too.

For anyone out there struggling to stay positive about their mental health during the festive season, here is my reminder that I am always here to chat. We can’t pretend that our illnesses don’t exist, no matter how much we cover them in tinsel and fairy lights. Mental illness can find us at any time, and all we can do is try our best to get through it in a healthy way.

Protect your mental health this Christmas and protect you for 2022.

Thanks for reading.