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Preserving Mental Health Over Christmas

A therapy session, with client and therapist contemplating together

The festive season is a period many of us look forward to with anticipation, as it is often filled with great cheer, sumptious food and generous exchanges of gifts. It is a time many of us travel to be with family, play games and watch all those timeless movies. But it is also the case that time off over Christmas and New Year is a cause for stress, as relationships come under strain, and we feel overwhelmed by all the expectations. This article looks at the role of boundaries and self-awareness, in preserving mental health.

Balancing the Need for Connection and Solitude

Christmas can bring with it an expectation for increased social interaction. Whilst this can be an opportunity for connection, and re-connection to those who mean the most to you, we may also find ourselves with people we have always struggled to get along with. Where Christmas can be an uplifting time, it can also lead to exhaustion, and increased stress and anxiety.

Maintaining a balance of socialising and rest is essential for maintaining your wellbeing during the busy season. As humans we are social beings, and being in the company of others sharing stories, laughter, perhaps even songs – can foster a powerful sense of belonging, and feeling valued. These interactions can lift our self-esteem and help improve our mood during a time that can be otherwise challenging due to financial pressures for example, and the cold winter months.

It is equally necessary for our wellbeing however, to take breaks. Time to ourselves to slow down, rest and meet our fundamental needs is necessary to maintain our energy levels, and to prevent burnout. If socialising becomes something you dread due to the anticipated fatigue, you will not feel the benefits mentioned above. We all need time to ourselves, as it allows us to reconnect to our thoughts and feelings, and to re-charge. This may also be especially important for those who are neurodivergent (e.g. diagnised with ADHD, Autism etc), or those with known mental or physical health challenges. Where our resources may already be compromised, feeling run-down will make it feel much worse.

This festive season, offer yourself the gift of boundaries. Recognise when you are reaching your limits, and give yourself permission to decline invitations, so that you can prioritise your own wellbeing. There is always a pressure to prioritise others’ wishes, and not wanting to let them down, and this dynamic becomes magnified when we are in a collective space for an extended period of time - this is true of Christmas, and other holday periods or special occasions through the year.

Self-care is necessary for your wellbeing, so while you work to engage in social interactions, don't forget to also give yourself the gift of quiet spaces and solitude.

Setting Personal Limits

Boundaries are the guidelines that we set for ourselves, that tell others what is or isn’t acceptable in our relationships. They are not only useful for helping others to know what they can expect from us, but they also help others to know where they stand with us. Boundaries are not just about saying “no” when you need to – though this can be an important step in setting or maintaining your boundaries. Boundaries are also about choices you make, who you let into your life and how you allow them to treat you.

The festive season and the whirlwind of social pressures and expectations that come with it, means that boundaries at this time of year are more important than ever. It is helpful to know your boundaries in advance, and to communicate these clearly to those around you. Boundaries during the festive season may relate for example, to finances, and how much money you can spend on gifts or socialising. They may also relate to how much you wish to drink, or how much you feel your partner should indulge, based on past experiences. Alcohol can fuel fun and laughter, but it can also lower inhibitions to the extent people say and do things they later regret.

Boundaries can be important to decide in advance to reduce pressure in the moment - for example to overspend, or overindulge. But boundaries during the festive season may also relate to your energy. Are you at ease spending a whole day or two with others, or do you manage better with smaller chunks of time? Might it be beneficial to commit to a few hours, if that is what you do better with? Taking a walk, or getting some fresh air, is often a good way to gain some perspective whilst also taking a break from it all. However you do it, factoring in some much-needed time to yourself is helpful, as it will assist you to recuperate.

Managing Family Dynamics

Christmas often brings together families – which for some can be a great source of joy and connectedness. For others however, time with family means time spent stressed and navigating difficult dynamics. This can be especially daunting where there are trauma memories from years gone by, perhaps because of how a sibling or parent treated you when you were younger. It may be that some members of your family simply don't get along, and repeating patterns of fall-out emerge, much to your dismay,

As is the theme here, boundaries help when dealing with difficult family dynamics. Boundaries may relate to topics of conversation, such as not being willing to discuss your dating life if that often leads to scrutiny or unwelcome feedback from others. As already indicated, you may consider limiting how much time is spent with family. Whilst society may place high value on time spent with relatives, this should not be prioritised at the expense of your self-esteem or wellbeing.

It can also be useful to manage your expectations. Whilst it is normal and understandable to hope for 'picture-perfect' family gatherings, having hope that things may suddenly be different this time (e.g. if there are clear patterns of challenging dynamics in times gone by) may only lead to hurt and disappointment. Acknowledging that we are all human and imperfect, and accepting that there is only so much you can do to positively influence the dynamics may help you to let go of any pressure to make everything “perfect”.

It is equally important to acknowledge that others have their imperfections too. Where possible and reasonable, see what can be overlooked. And don't forget to notice when relatives are actually being loving, supportive and respectful. A simple “thank you” can go a long way to showing that you recognise their efforts, which can foster appreciation and acceptance of one another. Remember that each family member has their own feelings and perspectives, and that they also deserve to feel heard. Striking the balance between being clear about your own needs and feelings with hearing and respecting others can be difficult, but can help to reduce frustrations with one another.

Know Yourself, Prioritise Yourself

If you have noticed that before or after certain social events you feel drained or anxious, why might this be? What can you learn about yourself, at these times? When you are happy and at ease, what tends to be filling the space around you - where are you, who are you with in these moments, and what do you tend to be doing? Self-awareness is key to pre-empting challenges. You can then let others know what works best for you, or simply arrange situations to a pattern that suits you. Of course, some compromise will always be necessary, but you will have some influence over what happens, rather than being a passive bystander, being swept away by decisions others are making.

Emotional fallout during social events is often a signal that you need a greater sense of control, personal space or simply respite. If this happens often, review your boundaries. Perhaps the environments you are entering into are overstimulating and exhausting, or you are travelling too often to go to others and this is draining you. Remember It is completely acceptable to decline invitations that put your health or wellbeing at risk. You can always suggest a get together outside of the Christmas period - perhaps in the quieter days of 27 or 28 December, as this means you step out of all the rush of things. Meeting outdoors for a countryside walk and pub lunch, may be a better way than feeling hemmed into the family home. It is also easier to leave, when you are done.

Work on Yourself

We can all build up emotional stamina, if we take care of our wellbeing in the day to day journey of life. Regular exercise, healthy diets and wellness activities such as walking in nature, yoga, mindfulness and tai-chi can do wonders for our mental health and resilience. In so doing, we can store up reserves, that we can draw upon to get by during more stressful times.

If you have some particular hurts, or worry about how you cope in times of stress or challenge, it may be helpful to get some counselling, life coaching or psychological therapy to address these needs. It's not for everyone, but many people who never tried talking therapies often wonder why they had left it so long! If nothing else, talk to friends and people you trust, A problem shared, after all, is a problem halved.

Encourage your workplace to foster better mental health and resilience. Organisations now need to have mental health first aid training, on par with physical first aid provisions. You may also wish to undertake some bespoke training, to benefit you and your colleagues.

With these strategies in mind, we at Solihull Well Being Clinic wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. We hope you can both experience and contribute to an environment that's calm, relaxed, and perhaps even....enjoyable.

Jamie Edwards / Guest Author

Credit: Unsplash


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