Looking after your mental health at Christmas

Kim Moore, Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at Birmingham City University, discusses depression at Christmas and what steps can be taken to help reduce it.

The pressure to have a ‘merry’ Christmas can highlight feelings of depression, as people become more aware that they aren’t feeling happy but ‘should’ be. In the UK, 20 per cent of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in any given year1 and in 2014, nearly 20 per cent of people in the UK aged 16 and over showed symptoms of anxiety and depression2.

It can be easy to become stressed, anxious or depressed in the lead up to and during the Christmas period as we put so much effort and investment into one day. The pressure to find the perfect gift, visit family and friends and make sure everything is in order can cause significant anxiety.

So what can you do to reduce the impact of depression on your Christmas?

1. Budget and plan

Woman using a calculator in a festive setting.Budgeting and planning your spending is key. Out of control present buying creates a huge stressor and whilst it can be hard to control your spending, deciding on a budget, being realistic about what you can afford and sticking to this is important. Buying gifts throughout the year can help spread the cost, whilst others might make many of their gifts. Wherever your skills lie, there will always be a way of giving to others without spending money you might not have.

2. Put yourself first

Although we all picture the perfect family gathering, spending time with family can be a big stressor at Christmas. Families are complicated and messy, and can trigger unhappy memories, disputes or feel monotonous. This can be especially the case for young people who may have just experienced their first term living away from home at university and find themselves having to re-adjust to living at home, and perhaps relinquishing some independence, over the holidays.

Learn to say no and 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 make any commitment – will this make me feel good or add to my stress? 

3. Prepare for cooking

If, like me you are the main chef in the house, cooking Christmas dinner can be stressful. But there are lots of dishes you can prepare in advance and great advice that can be found on cooking websites, books and TV programmes. If you’re cooking for a gathering, why not ask each guest to bring a dish for the table? You’ll end up with a delicious array of food without having to prepare it all yourself, and you’ll know that there will definitely be something everyone likes!

4. Socialise 

Two students having a drink in a beer garden.Unfortunately some people do find themselves alone at Christmas. Perhaps they have lost contact with family, or are living abroad. Being alone at Christmas, a time which we are taught is for being together, can contribute to feelings of depression. But whatever your circumstances, there are many ways to make Christmas social.

There are always charities, soup kitchens and shelters who are grateful for extra help over the festive period, and not only does this give you an opportunity to spend the day with others, you’ll get an extra boost from volunteering and helping others.

5. Factor in deadlines and revision

For many, exams, assessments and deadlines will be just around the corner after Christmas, and putting off thinking about them, or worrying about not spending enough time on them, can add extra stresses around the festive period. Whether it’s revision, assessments, placements, UCAS deadlines or writing up your personal statement, plan in time with your Christmas preparations to get these things done. Remember, a little bit every day will feel much better than cramming at the last minute.

6. Take care of yourself

If you are vulnerable at this time of year and know that you may have a low mood or experience symptoms of depression then consider any triggers or risk factors that might affect you. Know where you can get help and keep these visible and accessible – use them if you need to. There are health apps you can link to your phone and no matter what your age is there are online and telephone supports available to you during this time.

Christmas can be a time when we work to satisfy everyone’s needs except ourselves. Think about what you value the most at this time of year, it could be spending time with others, baking biscuits, volunteering or pampering yourself. Prioritise activities or events that make you feel good. 

Sometimes the smallest acts of kindness have the biggest impacts, so don’t be afraid to ask someone if they are OK. If you are not coping and need support, don’t hesitate in asking for help and these resources are available to you throughout the year, but especially during what can be one of the most difficult times of the year.

Where to find help

  • BCU Mental Health and Wellbeing team - counsellors, mental health advisers and wellbeing advisers who offer free, confidential appointments 51 weeks of the year. More information can be found on iCity.
  • BCU Peer and Wellbeing - student-run mental health first aid. Contact via email bcumhfa@gmail.com, or on Instagram @BCU_MHFA.
  • SANEline – a telephone crisis line for anyone from 15 years and older. There is no charge for calls and they are open everyday from 4.30pm until 10.30 pm on 0300 304 7000.
  • MIND – has a variety of supports available for all ages including the online community at Elefriends where peer support is available and general guidance and advice on the main web page.
  • The Samaritans - 24 hour help line for crisis can be contacted by phoning 116 123 it is free, confidential and accessible.
  • NHS services are working over the Christmas break, so if you need to see someone, think about contacting local services including your GP practice or on call GP’s, the NHS 111 helpline for advice, guidance and directions. If you are in need of urgent help, you can attend your local A&E department or if you have a mental health team supporting you a Christmas action plan and support will be available.

Evans, J., Macrory, I., & Randall, C. (2016). Measuring national wellbeing: Life in the UK; 2016.

WHO (2003). Caring for children and adolescents with mental disorders: Setting WHO directions. [online] Geneva: World Health Organisation.

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