By Kim Moore, Senior Lecturer in Mental Health

Yes it is nearly here again… the great Christmas competition, it seems like only yesterday I was packing up my Christmas decorations and paying off the Christmas loans.  But everywhere I go I see twinkling lights, Christmas decorations I can only aspire to, carols that repeat over and over again, and a powerful marketing message to be happy and jolly.  Well… Christmas is not always a ‘festive time filled with good cheer’, there are many people who dread the Christmas period,  some who  feel isolated, lonely or cut-off, others who have less than harmonious family gatherings and some for whom a hot meal is a luxury and Christmas is a lavish indulgence.

In the year of mental health first aid, perhaps the best gift we can give ourselves is to look after our own mental wellbeing and learn to manage our own stress during this Christmas period.  Here are some tips you might use to de-stress your Christmas.

Look after yourself – this is one of the most important things you can do.  This time of year is when we can feel the most isolated and alone.  Where most media is extolling togetherness and family it can enhance feelings of despair, it can feel like there is nothing for us, for many this will be the most difficult time of the year.  So what can we do?  Make a connection to others, talk on the phone or even Skype your friends. Local mental health emergency and crisis services will be available so make sure you know how to contact them and keep the number near your phone.  If you need to keep active, consider volunteering in a local community event where you are with others, this can not only help others it can make you feel more positive about your day.  Could you reach out to someone else? There are many people who may be spending Christmas by themselves, particularly older adults, why not invite them to be with you? Can you  ‘spare a chair’ this Christmas?

Budgeting and planned spending

Family with children purchasing toys

Out of control gifting creates one of the biggest stressors in the build-up to and beyond Christmas day in to the New Year.  It can be hard to control your finances at this time of year, particularly if you have children who want the best most expensive gift to keep up with their friends.  So plan where you want to spend your money, decide your budget and stick to it. Money saving tips are freely available on the internet and while no-one likes to say no at Christmas, giving gifts does not have to break the bank. Some of the best Christmas planners buy their presents throughout the year – spreading the cost, others make many of their gifts.  Wherever your skills lie, there will always be ways of giving to others without spending money you do not have.

For some of us, spending time with family can be one of the biggest stressors during Christmas

Couple quarreling on sofa in christmas day

Joyful, harmonious family gatherings may not always happen; snippy comments, emotional buttons being pushed can all trigger tricky family moments – and when combined with alcohol they can become explosive verbal, or at times physical, altercations. Christmas doesn’t change existing family dynamics, but you can prepare yourself somewhat.  You may not like someone’s behaviour, but you may have to accept this for one day.  Think about how much family time you can cope with, can you get some space if you need time out? Families are complicated and messy. They can trigger unhappy memories, be a centre stage for family disputes, or even feel monotonous and boring with the same old routines.

Learn to say no – The Christmas industry creates an expectation within us for providing bigger, better and more, not the ‘magical’ carefree time of harmonious sharing.  Saying no is not unkind, disrespectful or selfish, we often take on tasks because we want to be approved or loved by others.  Be aware of the commitments you are making to others – will you enjoy the event or do you feel ‘obliged’?  Events that we don’t enjoy, or have no time to enjoy can create feelings of stress, so ask yourself before you commit to anything – will this make me feel good or add to my stress?  Practice saying no, keep your reasons for refusal simple but be willing to compromise to suit your commitments. Saying no can make you feel stronger within yourself.

Drink sensibly – alcohol and Chrthinkstockphotos-613650622istmas seem to go together like a hand and glove.  At some point this Christmas and New Year you will be offered alcohol or plan to drink.  Before the day or evening event plan your drinking in advance. Do you want to drink alcohol, do you want to feel tipsy or just get drunk?  The fact is many of us will binge drink over the festive period, but do you know how much alcohol will take you over the safe driving limits (including the next day)? Remember, alcohol affects your risk behaviours and you may find you have acted in a way that you could come to regret or feel embarrassed about; so plan your alcohol intake and this will help you to stay in control.

For whatever you plan this Christmas, think about what your needs are and what you value, include activities that make you feel good.  Keep yourself safe and remember many of our thoughts and beliefs about Christmas come from idealised media portrayals.  So if your Christmas is not ‘picture perfect’ it is OK.