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Mental Health at Christmas

Earlier this week, I had the treat and joy of having a conversation with Harry (HSpaceMovement, Earsham Hall) about ways of taking care of our mental health at Christmas and into the New Year. Our conversation felt brief (while also managing to last nearly an hour!) and there are certainly further conversations and information for us to share in the future. This post is to get some of our top tips down in writing.

What can we do to manage our mental health and cope at Christmas and into the New Year?

To begin with we spoke about the foundations of good mental and physical health and ways of reducing our vulnerability to strong emotions.

  • Take care of our physical health – if we are physically unwell and run down it makes everything harder to manage
  • Eating well – not too much or too little, trying to keep it healthy as much as possible
  • Avoiding mood altering substances – these do what they say on the tin and alter our moods. Caffeine, alcohol, nicotine are included here…
  • Sleeping – trying to keep a good routine
  • Exercise – trying to do some exercise each day, going for a walk is great, or if you go to the gym keeping this as a routine

Other practical ways of managing Christmas stresses and into the new year:

  • Budget beforehand
  • Plan your time, including time to try and do things that are just for you and fit with your usual routine
  • If you can delegate tasks to other people then try to do so
  • Speak to friends who might be sharing a similar experience
  • Plan things to do for January, we don’t have to see everyone in the run up to Christmas – give yourself something to look forward to and take some of the pressure off now

These are the building blocks for good health generally. Often at this time of year we aren’t as good at taking care of these areas as we try and cram more and more into our already busy lives. We spoke specifically about some tips for sleep as this is something lots of people have issues with whether at Christmas or any other time of year.

Sleep Tips

Everyday tips to improve sleep:

  1. Attempt to keep to the same routine, particularly getting up at the same time everyday. This includes at weekends.
  2. Keep your bed for sleeping in only
  3. Avoid heavy meals, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, exercise shortly before bed
  4. Try and keep your bedroom dark and cool

If you can’t get to sleep after half an hour and are wide awake laying in bed but feeling ok, get up and do something calming (reading a book) until you are tired. Try and avoid screens or stimulating activities.

If you are laid in bed and feeling anxious and unable to sleep then there are also some other options:

  1. Try the 9-0 breathing technique. Take a breath in, as you breathe out say in your mind ‘9’. On your next breath out, say in your mind ‘8’… and continue in this way down to 0. Once at 0 start again but this time as you breathe out start at ‘8’. If you lose your place just start again from where you last remember.
  2. Notice your body sensations to ground you in the here and now
  3. Remember, you aren’t on your own, this is “middle of the night thinking” and is not unusual. It will feel better in the morning.
  4. Choose what you would like to think about. A technique I use is choosing a random large number then subtracting a number from that and counting down. It requires thinking about enough to keep our mind busy while also not being so interesting it keeps us awake. For example, subtracting 7s: 9870.. 9863..9856… We can do similar with naming something for each letter of the alphabet if numbers aren’t your thing.
  5. If all else fails, sometimes it is helpful to put the radio on quietly. You are looking for a quiet monotone type voice and keeping the volume down low. The BBC World Service is often a good option. Sometimes this can help us remember we aren’t the only ones awake and is, again, a distraction from our own thoughts while not waking us up more.

New Year and Resolutions

I’m not a fan of new years resolutions, it is so much pressure and often people can “set themselves up to fail”. We spoke about the importance of thinking though about what we value, whatever that may be. Our values can then guide what we would like our lives to look like. We might value family, friends, working hard, helping others, learning, spending time in nature… anything really.

Once we know what we value it can be helpful to think how much time in our lives do we spend doing what we value and what can we do to build more of it. If you value health and wellbeing and also like helping others, could you set a target to complete a sponsored walk/event for example in the first 6 months of the year. Any goals we set we need to be time specific and not just “to go to the gym more”. Thinking of our values will help us think about what goals are really important to us.

I would encourage anyone to start thinking about this regularly, not just at new year. It’s important that everyday we are working toward building more of what we value in our lives.

Being Present

Many of us spend our lives on autopilot (Doing Mode), including at celebrations or get togethers with family and friends. Doing mode is task focused and is how we can cook a Christmas Dinner, work, follow a set of instructions etc. However, if all we are able to think about is checking the time or the next thing we have to do we miss living our lives. We often hear about people saying they regret not living more, this is a sure sign they’ve been in Doing Mode. On the other hand, Being Mode is purely experiencing the moment just as it is, as if you have nothing to do and nowhere to go. This comes with its own problems as if we are purely being to do then we will do nothing. Hence we need to find a way of getting a balance between Being and Doing.

This can take a lot of practice, like any new skill we learn, so it is helpful to practice regularly. Here are some ideas to try out:

  • Use alarms to help take some of the pressure off. Can you work out your timings and then set an alarm for the next time something has to happen? Then you are able to focus on being in between times without having to think about checking the clock
  • If noticing feeling overwhelmed, struggling to focus, or an urge to multitask (doing lots of things badly!) then pause. Think to yourself “there is only this one thing”. After all, we can only wash one plate, fix one toy…
  • Notice any body sensations you are experiencing and use your senses to really pay attention.
3 Minute Breathing Space to Slow down “doing mind”
  1. Sit in a wide awake posture that is comfortable, we are not trying to relax. Ideally, if you can, keep your eyes open. Ask yourself, “what is my experience right now? What is going through my mind?” Pause and notice any experiences, thoughts, or emotions for a few moments. Notice them as mental events and neural firings. Then ask yourself, “what feelings am I experiencing?”. Again pause and notice these. Then say to yourself, “Ok, this is how it is right now”.
  2. Focus your entire attention on the breath, as it goes in and out, one after another after another. Gather yourself together and focus on the movement in your chest and abdomen, the rise and fall of your breath in and out as best you can. Let your breath and breathing become an anchor to the present moment.
  3. Once you have gathered yourself to an extent allow your awareness to expand. As well as your breath include a sense of your body as a whole. Notice your posture, your facial expression, and your hands. Follow your breath, as if your whole body is breathing.
  4. Whenever you are ready step back to your activities but use your wise mind, the link between being and doing mind, to help guide you. Your breath will always be an anchor to the present moment if you are feeling overwhelmed or on autopilot mode.

For more support and advice, whether about sleep, thinking about what we value and what is important to us, or other aspects of mental health please get in touch.