[Trigger warning: mention of eating disorders]

What is the best gift in the world? In my eyes it’s health. Being in good physical and mental health increases the chances of us living life to the full. Free from pain, stress and anxiety, we are open to opportunities, productive and much better at making sound decisions. Life may still be a challenge, yet we are more resilient and better able to cope.

This Christmas, I invite you to prioritise your mental health; what do you need to keep everything in balance?

Christmas is a Time of Joy

Christmas is a time of joy; at least that is the image portrayed in television ads and social media posts. In reality, it is a time of year ladened with expectations and they can be hard to fulfil.

For some, hosting family gatherings, providing an abundance of food and gifts and being highly sociable is a delight. For others, it’s a demanding obligation that elevates levels of stress and adds to financial pressures.

In most families, the workload isn’t shared, with women more likely to take on the additional shopping, wrapping, cooking and cleaning. This explains YouGov data which revealed that December causes increased stress levels in 51% of women (and 35% men).

For others, there is no family get together. The perception that everyone else is having a wonderfully social time emphasises their loneliness, isolation or grief.

My experience of suffering from an eating disorder made Christmas a rollercoaster of excitement and dread. I loved the social aspect of having the family together, swapping gifts and celebrating with our family traditions. On the other hand, the unavoidable onslaught of food and Christmas dinners filled me with anxiety, shame and guilt. Not being able to enjoy a meal lovingly prepared by family and friends often led to me being unintentionally rude, offensive and anti-social, but my eating disorder was misunderstood. You can read more about this in my ‘Fussy to Phobic’ blog.

Change of Routine

Christmas is also a disrupter of routine. Many people rely on interactions with work colleagues, shop assistants or parents at the school gate to feel connected. They might enjoy the company at weekly groups or access support services to help them cope. This often grinds to a halt between Christmas and New Year and anxiety can mount without these networks and interactions.

How to Have a Healthier Christmas

One thing about Christmas is that we know when it is coming and that means we can plan what we need to prioritise our physical and mental health.

Firstly, remember that expensive gifts are not what Christmas is about; think about what’s important to you. Forget the comparisons; it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing or giving. It is better to avoid financial debt and anxiety than to try to compete.

Hosting without Burnout

You may have no choice but to host Christmas Dinner, but there are ways to lower the workload and stress. Could you:

 – Assign the starter, dessert course or drinks to guests?

 – Play your favourite music whilst preparing the veg? –it feels less of a burden if you sing and dance as you chop

 – Order a takeaway on Christmas eve so you get a night off cooking?

 – Enjoy a lay in on Boxing Day as your reward?

Alone, but not Lonely

You might know that Christmas will be spent alone. Could you:

 – Arrange a call with a friend at an agreed time during the day?

 – Volunteer your time to help out at a community initiative?

 – Plan a treat day; your choice of film, music and meal with no need to compromise?

 – Map out a good walk? – a few passing ‘Merry Christmas’ with others can make you feel connected

Removing Triggers

If you know that the challenges of Christmas can be a trigger for unhelpful thoughts or behaviours.

– Ensure you have the contact details of a support service if you think you may find it difficult to cope.

– Put in place measures to reduce the risk of triggers, such as not buying alcohol or blocking access to gambling sites.

– Arrange to spend time with people who have a positive or calming influence on you.

Considering Others at Christmas

Are you aware of the indicators that someone might be experiencing mental health challenges? Research by the Mental Health Foundation in 2020 found that over 50% of adults had concerns about someone else’s wellbeing over Christmas.

If you have reason to believe that a colleague, neighbour, friend or relative might struggle through the festive break, your actions could make a difference.

 – Invite them out for a walk; being outdoors is good for everyone’s physical and mental health, even on a cold day.

 – Send a card with a kind message; remind them of a time spent together or thank them for something they helped you with.

 – Direct them to the Mental Health UK’s online Advent Calendar for daily wellbeing tips.

 – Make time for a video call or phone conversation so they don’t feel forgotten.

 – Offer to babysit, pick up some shopping or give your time in some way that might help.

These actions don’t cost a penny and they can’t be wrapped and put under the tree. They are, however, a way of showing you care, which is a valuable and memorable gift.

 

Mindset Mental Health provides training and resources to support good mental health in the workplace.