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Why our mental health suffers at Christmas – and how to look after it

Prima (UK) logo Prima (UK) 6 days ago Lydia Smith

Why our mental health suffers at Christmas – and how to look after it © JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Why our mental health suffers at Christmas – and how to look after it

For many of us, Christmas is a time of fun and celebration, but it can also bring stress and anxiety.

Whether you live with mental illness or not, the festive period can intensify feelings of loneliness, increase financial worries and put pressure on people to have the "perfect" Christmas.

One in 10 people feel unable to cope at this time of year, according to research by the charity Mind - a figure which rises to a third of people with a mental health problem.

Alex*, 38, says she finds the high expectations at Christmas difficult to deal with.

'I think when my mental health problems first became an issue and I was having panic attacks and anxiety, Christmas was a break from the norm, Christmas day wasn't a normal day and I felt surrounded by a lot of fuss and expectation,' she says.

'It's that expectation that you will be happy, jolly and participate in every aspect of Christmas, when sometimes you just want to curl up with a cup of tea and a Christmas movie, go to bed early, or just do your own thing for a while.

'I think when you are anxious to whatever degree you have your tolerance levels, and that's something that other people don't understand,' Alex adds.

Our mental wellbeing can take a hit at Christmas for a number of reasons. Overspending is common – around 41% of people surveyed by Mind in 2015 reported getting into debt – which can increase strain and stress. We tend to overindulge and drink more alcohol, which can worsen mental health symptoms, while overexerting ourselves socially – which can leave us tired and anxious.

Many things that are part of our routines become disrupted at this time of year, including the way we eat.

Journalist Francesca Baker, 30, who has been in recovery from anorexia for more than a decade, says Christmas and New Year can be a stressful period.

'Christmas is all about rich food and lots of drinking for many people, and I struggle with this,' says Baker, of Andsoshethinks.co.uk. 'There's an expectation that the lovely meals will be fun, and I wish they were, but they are often just very anxiety provoking.

'In the past, I've struggled with "saving myself" for a big meal, restricting in advance of what I think will be overindulgence,' she says. 'This just sets me up for failure, makes me grumpy, and actually makes the meal itself more anxious.

'I try to manage these aspects I now stick to my meal plan and times as much as possible, and remember that it's only one day, and having a bit more doesn't matter.'

And while many rely on cosy evenings with family and friends to see us through Christmas, it can be a reminder of the loved ones we've lost – which, combined with the pressure to be cheerful, can be extremely difficult and isolating.

But there are several steps you can take to make the holiday season a little bit easier:

Do something you love

Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind, suggests taking time out for some 'me' time.

'If you find Christmas a particularly difficult time to manage your mental health try to take time out to do something you enjoy, whether it's reading a book, painting, crafting, phoning a friend, relaxing or doing physical exercise,' he says.

It's key not to feel guilty for doing something unrelated to the festivities – and remember it's okay to say no to an event to avoid festive burnout.

'If you are spending time with lots of people and can find it overwhelming it might be helpful to plan in regular breaks where you can clear your head, and stop negative thoughts and emotions from building up.'

For Alex, making time for herself helps make this time of year more manageable. 'I still feel uncomfortable and anxious about Christmas today, though have learned to pace myself, stand up for myself if I want or need some time out, and to try and break up the festive celebrations into smaller doses,' she says.

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Plan ahead

Sticking to routines as much as possible can help prevent Christmas feeling overwhelming – as can planning ahead, which can save you stress, time and money. Making manageable lists for jobs to do, presents to buy and food helps to organise your thoughts, prevents you forgetting things and makes it easier to budget.

Exercise

It's difficult to drag yourself outside to walk, run or go to the gym over Christmas, but rarely a day goes by without new research highlighting the benefits of exercise on your mental health.

Even helping out in the garden can be beneficial. Recent research by the Wildlife Trust found two-thirds of its volunteers – who took part in conservation works and built bird tables – had better mental wellbeing in six weeks.

Try a new activity

Trying a new hobby or sport is a good way to meet other people - and getting crafty can help if you're worried about spending over Christmas.

'Handmade gifts are often inexpensive and more meaningful, if you're worried about finances think about making your own Christmas decorations or upcycling pre-loved items, which can for some be a really positive way of lifting your mood and helping your green footprint.'

Stay in touch

It's also important to keep in touch with people. 'Even if you won't be seeing anyone face-to-face, contact by email, sending a text, or phoning someone can make a big difference.

'It can help you to feel valued and confident about yourself, and can give you a different perspective on things,' says Buckley. 'If you can, try to spend more time with loved ones, peers or colleagues.'

Joining a local community group or online safe space could be an opportunity to talk to others, such as Mind's online community Elefriends.

Take time out to go away

Getting away is definitely good for your mental health; whether that means going abroad, on a trip to a different town, or even volunteering at a charity, which would also give you the chance to meet new people.

Related: Eat to beat stress: 10 foods that reduce anxiety (provided by Men's Fitness)

1. Asparagus: <p>Depression has been linked to low levels of folic acid, and one vegetable that boosts this mood-enhancing nutrient is asparagus. A single cup provides two-thirds of your daily value, and it’s easy to fit asparagus into almost any meal. Some ideas: Sauté some asparagus tips for a tasty omelet. Go with steamed or grilled spears as a side vegetable for meat, fish or poultry. Snack on some steamed spears by dipping in some dressing.</p><p><a href="http://www.mensfitness.com/nutrition/what-to-eat/the-20-fittest-foods">20 fittest foods &gt;&gt;&gt;</a></p> Eat to beat stress: 10 foods that reduce anxiety

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