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Opinion: It's important to prioritise your mental health this Christmas

Krystian Fikert says it’s important to take our time this Christmas and be kind to ourselves.

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Updated Dec 21st 2021, 11:00 AM

BY NOW YOU will likely have seen the sparkly Christmas adverts, or maybe even the old “Holidays are Coming” footage. All of which are cleverly designed by the advertisers to make us feel positive and happy about the festivity of Christmas lying ahead – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Whatever you may think about retailers selling us an idealised notion of what Christmas is, for most of us it is a time of happiness and joy, for families to come together, eat too much, play some silly games and fall asleep in front of the TV.

However, some of the major ads have taken a different approach in recent years, choosing to highlight how difficult the Christmas period can also be, for a wide variety of reasons. Christmas brings a host of extra pressures, particularly with regard to our mental health.

Tackling loneliness

Loneliness at Christmas should be a concern, it can afflict all ages, particularly in these terrible Covid-affected times. It can also be difficult due to social expectations to be out and about having fun with friends and family – which just isn’t the reality of life for some.

There are many reasons this week why some may not have the same social opportunities as others, whether due to Covid restrictions, social anxiety, incapacity or a host of circumstantial issues that prevent them from enjoying the company of others.

It is more important than ever that this Christmas we consider others who may either feel or be physically trapped alone in their home. A simple act of taking half an hour to drop around for a cup of tea, or picking up the phone for a chat, can make a world of difference to someone’s mental health over Christmas.

If you are feeling alone this Christmas, there is always a need for volunteers, whether it be with a local charity or community organisation. Volunteering at Christmas is a great way to be part of something positive. Perhaps set yourself the goal of re-establishing a connection from the past, taking a positive step to tackle the potential fear of failure or rejection. The very act of setting yourself a challenge will be positive in itself.

Christmas – reminder of the past

The pressure of Christmas on our mental health can manifest itself in many other ways. Some of us will feel acute sadness at this time of the year, whether through bereavement – again, something that will only be exacerbated by the Covid restrictions we have all been living through – or perhaps a result of a perceived or real lack of success in one’s goals as the year draws to a close.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is felt most acutely at this time of the year when the days are shortest and with winter beginning to bite hard, the sunshine is seemingly replaced by endless cloudy and rainy days.

All of this will have a noticeable impact on our mood and steps should be taken to counteract this, to combat the feelings of hopelessness, stress and frustration. Anxiety at any time of the year can be a very slippery slope and is a real challenge for many of us to prevent the slide downhill. The important thing to remember is that you are never alone and it is not just you.

There are also some very positive proactive steps we can take to either prevent or minimise the impacts of Christmas on our mental health. There is overwhelming evidence that physical exercise, even if comparatively moderate, can-do wonders for feeling a little more positive.

The power of movement

Make sure you go out for a walk every day and try to set up a small target that is achievable for you, for example, 5k steps or a 3-4 km walk. If you don’t enjoy walking, try to find another physical activity, such as dancing for 30 minutes to your favourite music, stretching your body. YouTube is a great resource for fun and informative videos to help anyone get active.

The social expectations of Christmas can feel overwhelming at times. If you are someone who finds themselves very oversubscribed or perhaps feels social anxiety, don’t be afraid to say no to a party or social gathering.

Do what is right for you and look after yourself. Equally, it is important to remember the impact that alcohol can have on our mental health, negatively affecting our sleeping patterns and increasing anxiety levels. So, while it is of course normal and important to enjoy Christmas, the message has to be of moderation.

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At this time of year, we are also thrown together with friends and family who we may not see very often and it is important to remain tolerant but to particularly manage our expectations of those closest to us, sharing responsibilities and being prepared to discuss openly and calmly any issues that do arise, as is probably inevitable. The pressures of everyone suddenly coming together, often under one roof and for a short period of time, should not be underestimated.

Should things get worse over Christmas and you feel you need a little extra support after or don’t know where to turn for help, please do seek help. If you are struggling, please do get in touch.

And as for the central message of all those overtly happy Christmas ads, with their smiling faces, colourful Christmas trees, full dining tables and jingly tunes – Christmas is a time to take a moment and enjoy what is around us, so try to live in the moment.

Be thankful for all the nice things that are around you, be more mindful and appreciate all the small moments that can make Christmas the most wonderful time of the year.

Krystian Fikert is a trained clinical psychologist. He established MyMind as a solution to the counselling affordability problem for students. For more information, please visit MyMind.org. If you are in a crisis situation and need immediate support you should always call 999 or visit https://www2.hse.ie/wellbeing/mental-health/get-urgent-help.html.

Other resources:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • National Suicide Helpline 1800 247 247 – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement)
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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