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Coping with Mental Illness During Christmas

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This time of year is expected by many to be filled with joy and sharing good memories with loved ones, friends and family. There comes a pressure to suddenly switch off all negativity and instead focus on the cheer that comes with Christmas; ironically, the demand for such need can be hugely detrimental to those dealing with a mental illness. Those who have been dealt the hand of depression know of the all-consuming feeling of emptiness as well as the spiral and out of control racket of emotions that can swallow a person whole.

To switch on happiness is an alien thought process when waking up in the morning, and feeling motivated to complete what some might consider even the simplest of daily self-care tasks can feel like a mountainous challenge to achieve. And it might not just be the illness itself that can be debilitating, but also the circumstance, our loved ones may be far away or we may be grieving the loss of a relative. While Christmas is expected to be full of love and laughter, it can also be a dark reminder of loneliness, of isolation, and of feeling lost; whether you are sat alone physically or in a crowd of people, it makes no difference to how your mind can design a world where you feel hopeless and dejected.

So, how we can cope with the perils of Christmas in both the run-up to the big day and the actual day itself? Thankfully, many charities and organisations associated with mental health have published helpful guides on how we can best get through the festive period and how to take care of ourselves. Some of these may seem obvious or trivial but, from personal experience, sometimes the simplest things that take little mental energy can be the most rewarding in boosting mood and feeling more at peace.

The first one may be difficult as the biggest association with Christmas is probably gluttony and greed, we eat everything in sight and use it as an excuse to gorge on food and comfort eat our way through the hours and the days that pass. While the initial joy of receiving every single chocolate you cannot live without will boost your mood, the overall build of feeling uncomfortably full and sickly will only enhance the fact you don’t feel so good about yourself. We’ve all been guilty of it, and comfort eating to me is an addiction that all year round is difficult to break, let alone Christmas. Instead, cut down some of the sugary treats and replace them with fruit or make sure you’re drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated. This can also go hand in hand with doing a little bit of exercise, whether it’s going for a walk or doing a fitness DVD in the comfort of your own home, it will boost your mood and even relieve stress and fatigue.

Next, find something that makes you happy, and it doesn’t have to be anything major. It can be committing to spending ten minutes a day meditating and concentrating on your breathing, it could be having a candlelit bubble bath, or sitting down to watch your favourite Christmas film. Personally, I like to get crafty, making simple origami decorations for the house and most of all, using the cold dark nights as an excuse to read a book or listen to one. Take the expectation off trying to please everyone and go back to basics. It is vital that before you can help others, you must help yourself. Even get your loved ones involved, such as playing board games or baking a cake, and forge new memories in simple everyday activities that won’t break the bank. But in the same essence, don’t overdo yourself. You don’t have to attend everyone’s parties and celebrations if you know it is going to be detrimental to your mental health. Be sure to prioritise your energy into spending time with those who matter most to you and who are understanding of your struggle.

Lastly, these are the most beneficial to me: finding a community of people in which you feel comfortable to talk about how you honestly feel. It could be a family member, a friend, a loved one or even a stranger on social media in the same boat, but there is someone out there you will feel open to talk to if you are struggling. Whether you speak in person or write to each other, it is important to acknowledge how you feel and just like a pressure valve, once you release some of your struggles, your mind may feel lighter for doing it. If you feel you can’t open up to anyone around you, remember there are plenty of organisations willing to listen. And a brilliant hashtag #joinin on Twitter started by comedian Sarah Millican is a positive and uplifting way in which to share your Christmas celebrations and thoughts with thousands of people who may also feel isolated or lonely. You never know what sorts of friends you might make, I know I’ve found plenty through these wonderful little innovative ideas that forge a friendly community.

It is important at Christmas to look after yourself, and while at first, it may seem like an impossible challenge, by breaking it down and going back to basics you will be amazed at what you can do. Write down your anxieties, take time to focus on what you enjoy and surround yourself with positivity in the people around you and the things you decide to achieve. And most of all remember this, it’s just one day, so spend it in a way that makes you happy, with the people you love and find whatever brings the light back into your life at Christmas.

Katie Bagshawe is currently pursuing her MSc Psychology degree at Sheffield Hallam University after completing a BSc Computing degree from the University of Cumbria. After acting as her father’s carer in his final years with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, she has become impassioned to do research on the psychological impact of progressive lung disease and hopes to continue doing a PhD in the same research area. You can connect with her on Twitter.

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