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Dublin: 5 °C Saturday 19 April, 2014

Column: Christmas can be a hard time for people – we all need support

People put a lot of pressure on themselves over Christmas, and the emphasis on making everything ‘perfect’ makes many feel inadequate, alone, or unable to cope. But there are ways to avoid anxiety, writes Ciaran Behan.

Ciaran Behan

Ciaran Behan was diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder in 2011 and has written candidly about his personal experiences regarding his mental health on his blog and on this website. Recognising the stress and strain that so many people experience in the lead-up to Christmas, he has shared some tips on combating anxiety during the festive period…

AT THE WEEKEND I was in Castlebar starting my Christmas shopping. The day was quite cold and I am not a huge Christmas shopping fan really, but to be honest I am on top of things lately – so I was quite looking forward to getting things together early and boxed off before the 24th December.

I said to my partner that we’d get a quick bite to eat in McDonald’s and then go home. We drove over to the golden arch in the sky and parked up. Walking into McDonald’s can be a daunting experience at times. Screaming children, unhappy parents, tills closing and opening and staff screaming orders. The polar opposite of what it should be, I guess. I went about getting our order and my partner went about the military-executed task of finding us seating. Not long had passed while we were sitting down eating when I noticed a dad nearby with his three children, who I would guess were all under the age of nine.

While we were eating away the kids were firing questions at their father of what Santa should bring them for Christmas… i-Pads, i-Phones the new Xbox, the new PlayStation and also clothes were mentioned. I could hear the Dad was not coping too well, he lost his temper a bit and the kids were quite taken aback. I sort of tuned out and went about finishing my meal.

We finished up and I headed in to use the toilet before leaving, asking my partner to wait a minute. When I went into the toilet there were two urinals and one cubical, I could hear the father from earlier talking on his phone from inside the cubical and he was speaking to someone sounding quite upset – I could go as far as say crying – while speaking saying: “I can’t handle it any more, I have lost my job, Christmas is going to be ruined and the kids won’t understand”.

This all happened within the matter of one minute and numerous things flashed through my head about what could I do. I did not know what to do but I felt uneasy and just walked out and explained what happened to my partner. I felt if I interrupted the man and tried to have a chat I might make things worse or anger him. So I said I would go home and write about it in the hope that it might help someone who might be in bother over this holiday season.

I am no poster boy for mental health nor do I try to be – but I know that since 2011 I have learned a lot about myself and ways to deal with things. Christmas can be a hard time for people and support is what everyone needs. So I have ten tips that I have learned over the past two years with the help of my nurse and doctor to help me over the holidays and these might be of use to someone else.

  1. Acknowledge your feelings: If someone close to you has recently died or you can’t be with loved ones, realise that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. It’s OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s Christmas.
  2. Reach out: If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, or any other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.
  3. Be realistic: The holidays don’t have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can’t come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails or videos.
  4. Set aside differences: Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. Try to be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress too.
  5. Stick to a budget: Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don’t try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Try these alternatives: Donate to a charity in someone’s name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.
  6. Plan ahead: Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That’ll help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients. Also make sure to line up help for party prep and cleanup.
  7. Learn to say no: Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can’t participate in every project or activity. If it’s not possible to say no when your boss asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.
  8. Don’t abandon healthy habits: Don’t let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don’t go overboard on sweets, or alcohol. Continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity.
  9. Take a breather: Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Take a walk at night and have a look at the stars. Listen to classical music. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.
  10. Seek professional help if you need it: Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional. Also the Samaritans are always around to listen if you need an ear to talk to.

These 10 points are not going to make your Christmas stress free but I do hope that they can be of assistance to you. I have noticed learning your triggers can stop things from blowing up and becoming a major problem and possibly ruining your festive season. A little planning can make a major difference for your mental health. I do hope that if by any chance that gentleman is reading this, that his luck has taking a turn for the better.

Thanks for reading.

Ciaran Behan writes a blog, The Inside Out Man, where this post originally appeared.

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