By Annemarie Gaynor
Christmas is often seen as a time of happiness and excitement. Festivities often highlight the things we are grateful for, and this feeling of gratitude can also increase our sense of wellbeing.
Developing a positive perspective
Even if we can’t be with our loved ones, technology has made it possible to spend time together with platforms like Zoom and Facetime. Spending time catching up with those close to us can boost our mood, which is good for our mental and physical health.
Psychologists suggest that Christmas decorations make many people feel happier. Decorations are nostalgic and bring people back to simpler and happier times, at least mentally. They also boost dopamine, the feel-good hormone, which adds to helping our feel-good factor. However, there are other ways we can create a positive mindset in the run-up to Christmas, which include:
- Embrace Christmas and enjoy the run-up to Christmas.
- Avoid overspending, as this can lead to the January blues when facing the January bills.
- If putting up the Christmas decorations early helps you feel happy, do it. Just ensure you don’t do it too early and lose the Christmas magic by the time Christmas comes.
- If you’re full of the Christmas spirit, be careful not to overdo the spirits. Watch your indulgence levels to avoid a drop-in feel-good chemical in your brain.
- Be mindful of those who don’t share your feelings around Christmas. Check in on neighbours and friends who may be having a challenging time around this period or are alone to see if you can help. Even a quick cup of tea can help someone through a difficult Christmas.
When Christmas is not a Positive Experience
There is another side to Christmas, and studies suggest that for almost 50% of us, Christmas can be extremely difficult on our mental health. With all that nostalgia comes memories and situations that may not always be positive. Add in financial strains, loneliness, isolation, dealing with bereavement following the loss of a loved one, spending time in intense family situations or partaking in excess drinking or substance use; many things can impact our mental health and wellbeing at Christmas time.
- Christmas parties can bring up feelings of social anxiety. This can lead us to overindulge, leading to ‘The Fear’ after the party. This can be enough to ruin Christmas with drunken flashbacks. If you’re anxious about going to a party, avoid alcohol or swap drinks with soft drinks.
- Family Gatherings can cause a lot of stress, especially in strained relationships. Before you visit, have your exit plan ready if needed. Remember, you don’t have to respond. You can decide who you give your energy to even if you can’t decide who to give your time to. Choose your battles. Silence is often more powerful.
- Social media can often make feelings of loneliness or isolation worse. People often portray a perfect life on social media, but it’s not always true. Disengage from social media for the Christmas period. Instead, plan for your day, keep a regular sleep pattern, and try to get outside for a walk once a day. Reach out to people. You may be surprised how welcoming people are during the festive period.
- Bereavement can be particularly difficult, especially if that person was a big part of your Christmas. In the run-up to Christmas, the feeling of dread may be ahead of you. If you have children, it is important that Christmas is still magical for them despite the loss. Allow time for your emotions. Remember, it is okay to feel sad, and it is okay to feel happy. Early mental preparation will help you manage the Christmas period. A visit to the grave and involving your children can allow for family unity around the loss.
- Do not dwell in the past: For many of us, we have some that we may be thinking of through rose-tinted glasses, some that we think of filled with pain or dread and half we can’t remember at all. Try not to dwell on the past, good or bad. Instead, focus on the present. We only have this moment. The past is gone, and the future is yet to come. This will help us get through tough times over the Christmas period.
Dealing with Financial Strain
Christmas is the one time of year that most of us feel under extreme financial stress. Christmas comes once a year, but you do not want to spend the next twelve months after Christmas trying to pay for big dents in your pockets because of overspending. The winter months hold an added pressure financially for everyone. With extra heating and electricity costs and the cost-of-living crisis in full swing, it is now more than ever we need to be aware of our Christmas spending.
As a mother of four children, I understand the reality and pressure of managing finances in the lead-up to Christmas. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel anxious every October when it comes to fulfilling my children’s Santa wish lists. It is common to hear them ask for the latest iPhone or, with older teens, a car. It can be challenging to resist pressure when peer pressure is a significant factor. However, as much as we want our children to have fun and enjoy the season, we should remember the bills that must be paid in January. Therefore, it is helpful to:
- Set your budget and stick to it. My tip is to list who you are buying for and set a budget per person. For example, if I budget 30 euros to buy my sister a present, I stick to the 30 euros.
- Give older children a budget and then ask them to do their list using it. This is not only helpful for you, but also you are teaching them budgeting skills.
- Christmas starts in January. Get into the habit of putting away a little each week for your Christmas shopping.
- Remember to shop around. But also remember not just to buy because it is on sale.
- Christmas clubs were something I saw in every shop window as a child, but not so much these days. If you see them, then use them as they are a helpful way of saving money for Christmas. Especially as the shop holds the money and not you!
- Don’t go mad at the food shop. The shops reopen the day after St. Stephen’s Day, so the need to stock up isn’t needed anymore. Price the important things like your turkey and ham separately. Again, do your budget and stick to it for the rest of your shopping.
- Avoid the spending hangover: It is very easy to get caught up in the Christmas spending, but the last thing you want is a spending hangover. This is where you’re left with no money after a busy spending period.
- Finally, avoid debt. Avoid borrowing to finance Christmas as much as you can. Many people use the credit union to finance Christmas. If you get a Christmas loan, aim to pay it off quickly. Do not use money lenders or take out high-interest loans.
The Effect of Dark Nights on Our Moods
One of the more overlooked aspects of Christmas and our mental health is the weather. Many don’t notice how our moods change over the winter months. Sunshine boosts our dopamine, which helps us to feel good. There is a particular type of depression called ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’, which is brought on by the long dark nights and often days. Research suggests that up to 7% of us have SADS. With many more undiagnosed.
Feeling extra tired, unmotivated, not socializing, and generally in a low mood, you may have SADS. Here are some helpful tips to stay on top over the Christmas period.
- Get out and walk whenever the sun shines, even on dull days. It may seem too weak to lift your mood, but even a little sunshine has been shown to work the gland behind our eye that makes us happy.
- Take extra Vitamin D supplements throughout the dark months. This has been shown to improve depression symptoms and help sleep.
- Try light therapy. You can purchase these special lights on popular websites and other places, effectively improving your mood.
Reaching out for Support
If you are finding the Christmas period difficult to manage, please remember there is No Shame in looking for help. It can be hard to take the first steps to seek help. Especially at Christmas, as you do not want to bother people. Speak to a trusted friend or family member and tell them how you feel. Reaching out to someone can ease any underlying pressure to behave in a certain way or feel a certain way just because it is Christmas.
Remember, if you had the flu, you would contact your GP, and your mental health is no different. It is important to remember that no matter the time of year, support is always available, whether that means talking to your GP, calling a phone line, confiding in a family member, or seeking other support. You are not alone, and be confident about your resilience; remember that seeking help and being honest about how you feel is often the doorway to tapping into your inner strength.
If you need help with your mental health this Christmas, support and services are available. You can contact the organisations below or contact your GP.