Mental health during the winter holidays

The Christmas holidays are approaching, and this time of year is usually filled with the joy of preparation, of celebration that brings families and friends together in a festive atmosphere.

Towns are dressed up for the festive season, and the various events specific to this period (Christmas fairs, carol concerts, traditional performances, etc.) are organised to bring us closer to the joy of the winter holidays.

However, Christmas is not a time of fulfilment and happiness for all of us.

Christmas is different for each of us.

This period can be a trigger for some people for specific symptoms (feelings of melancholy, loneliness, increased sadness, stress). Although these may only be momentary symptoms, experienced contextually, they can become worrying if they continue for longer than 2 weeks, as they can lead to various clinical conditions such as depression or anxiety.

Although the increase in suicide and self-harm during the Christmas period is a myth, multiple studies show that the winter holidays do, in most cases, exacerbate the symptoms of people diagnosed with a mental disorder.

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worsening of symptoms

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increased sadness

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creates financial pressure

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creates unrealistic expectations

The National Alliance on Mental Disorders in the United States conducted a study in 2004 showing that 64% of people with a psychiatric diagnosis report that the winter holidays contribute negatively to their symptoms. Of these, a significant percentage report that the holidays make them feel sad or dissatisfied (75%), create financial pressure (68%), make them feel lonely (66%) and create unrealistic expectations (57%).

For these people and their familiesChristmas holidays can be even more a time of loneliness, stress, anxiety and/or depression, which can contribute to the exacerbation of symptoms: increased depression or anxiety, increased alcohol consumption, the onset of psychotic episodes in schizophrenia or manic or depressive episodes in bipolar disorder.

What you can do

Below are a number of suggestions for reducing stress levels and maintaining good mental health over the Christmas holidays and beyond:

1. 🎄 Enjoy the holidays your way.

Wanting to be close to our loved ones during this time is completely normal and natural. However, do your best to reduce the level of stress experienced by you and your loved ones.

If you feel unwell or can’t travel, or your family and friends can’t physically be with youThink of the alternatives: you can have Christmas dinner with your loved ones via online platforms, and the people you want to keep in touch with will surely enjoy a carol sing-along on the phone. We all want to be as close to family and friends as possible around Christmas, and when you need to take extra care of yourself, flexible plans are the best idea.

2. 🎁 Set realistic expectations.

The context of not being able to celebrate the holidays in the way we used to can generate understandable feelings of disappointment, sadness or regret. However, accepting the reality of the moment and assessing the situation objectively can help.

Consider that The image of the perfect family dinner portrayed in films and advertisements is fictional. Reducing the discrepancy between the expectation of having “perfect holidays” accompanied by a permanent state of happiness and the reality in which we are aware of what is objectively possible in the given context, can help us to keep a balance between celebration and good for each other.

3. ✋ Pay attention to your needs.

Around the holidays, we may feel more pressure to do things a certain way. Christmas is a time that encourages us to be kinder and more attentive to the needs of others, but we must not neglect our own physical and mental well-being. Prioritise what is really important to you and pay attention to what triggers stress in difficult situations – What is stressful for you at this time, what makes you physically and mentally agitated?

Once you become aware of what triggers your anxiety, you will be able to look for solutions to avoid or cope better with stressful situations. It’s okay to say no to plans that don’t meet your needs.

4. 💌 Express your gratitude.

Practising gratitude is an effective way to reduce stress and depressive symptoms. We can therefore take advantage of the approaching end of the year to reflect on the good things that have happened in recent months.

We know that life is full of challenges and – especially in times of mental pressure – it’s hard to find the good things in your life among them, but there is certainly something and someone you are grateful for. Christmas is a good time to say thank you to those who have supported you and whom you appreciate. Tell them on the phone, write them an email or message, or keep the good times to yourself in a gratitude journal.

5. 🛑 Set boundaries.

Family dynamics can be complex. Sometimes even a video call meeting with family can be a cause of stress and/or conflict. In some cases, spending time with family over the holidays might be more stressful and exhausting than being alone. Focus on what you can control or look for ways to limit your exposure to stressful situations.

6. 💗 Get involved in charity.

Christmas is a time to be better and give back to the community. Helping those less fortunate than ourselves also contributes to our well-being, reduces feelings of loneliness and helps us feel more connected to the community we are part of.

Find a charity to volunteer with, donate to a cause you care about, identify a community need you think you can meet and take the initiative.

7. ✨ Take care of yourself and your body.

Taking care of yourself and prioritising activities that make you feel good are important in all circumstances. Even more so in stressful times, it is very important to pay attention to our basic needs. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle through a balanced diet, regular physical activity, getting enough rest at night may sound cliché, but they are the necessary basis without which we cannot talk about mental health.

Taking care of our own bodies also means avoiding habits that impact us negatively. In this regard, even though temptation can be high during this period, try to avoid alcohol and drugs. Contrary to expectations, alcohol is a brain depressant, and excessive consumption produces complex changes in the brain that can trigger and maintain a range of worrying symptoms.

8. 🆘 Ask a specialist for help.

When you feel overwhelmed and can’t seem to shake negative emotions, it can be a warning sign that you need help from a mental health professional.

It can help you identify the specific thoughts, behaviours and events that trigger and maintain negative emotions and help you devise an action plan to change them. If you already have a mental health professional you work with, make an appointment and talk to them about what’s bothering you at this time.

Bibliography:

  1. Dale, R., Budimir, S., Probst, T., Stippl, P., & Pieh, C. (2021). Mental Health during the COVID-19 Lockdown over the Christmas Period in Austria and the Effects of Sociodemographic and Lifestyle Factors. International Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health, 18(7), 3679. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18073679
  2. Mutz, M. (2015). Christmas and Subjective Well-Being: a Research Note. Applied Research In Quality Of Life, 11(4), 1341-1356. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11482-015-9441-8
  3. Ploderl, M., Fartacek, C., Kunrath, S., Pichler, E., Fartacek, R., Datz, C., & Niederseer, D. (2014). Nothing like Christmas–suicides during Christmas and other holidays in Austria. The European Journal Of Public Health, 25(3), 410-413. https://doi.org/10.1093/eurpub/cku169
  4. Sansone, R., & Sansone, L. (2011). The Christmas Effect on Psychopathology. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 8(12), 1-13.
  5. Mental Health and the Holiday Blues| NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. Nami.org. (2014). Retrieved 7 December 2021, from https://www.nami.org/Press-Media/Press-Releases/2014/Mental-health-and-the-holiday-blues.

Author: Psih. Ioana Vatamanu – Clinical Psychologist, Psychotherapist

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