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Managing a mental health condition can be a challenge 365 days of the year, but I find that winter feels especially tough. By the time you’ve settled into a routine of ‘just about managing’, it seems that the festive season has reappeared, with all the stresses that come along with it.
Falling temperatures are already a shock to the system and require extra energy to get me through the day. Every day we pile on extra layers of additional clothing (which, by the way, is pretty exhausting if you’re struggling with pain or fatigue). Whilst this is a season of cheer for many, this is not always the case – particularly if you are struggling with a mental health problem.
From navigating through crowded streets filled with stressed-out shoppers, to large social gatherings with relatives or colleagues, this time of year can feel like the ultimate sensory overload. And for those who are isolated at this time, you can feel even more lonely and vulnerable.
In fact, when I picture my sanctuary of inner zen (at the top of a mountain or overlooking the ocean) the reality of December living in London’s Zone 2 can feel like a whole other planet.
So what can you do to survive the festive season if you are struggling? How can you ward off panic attacks or manage your energy during a season which involves a constant stream of activity.
None of us like to admit defeat, but as humans we are not infallible. We are not machines that have a constant supply of electricity to keep us going for days on end. Just as each of us have our own personality traits or physical attributes, we also have a varying level of baseline energy. This is evident when thinking about sleep. It’s so important to make sure you get enough rest and sleep time to you, and what you need may vary (I know I need my full 8 hours a night).
With this baseline level of energy in mind, we must be kind to ourselves and be careful not to hurtle ourselves through a hectic schedule without risking an almighty crash at the end. In the longer run, our immune systems are at greater risk to relapse into a worsened state of physical or mental health.
It’s ok if you cannot attend everything, or stay until the end of the party. It’s ok to go for a short while, or to rearrange a smaller catch-up over a cup of coffee during the daytime. Talk to people about how you feel and let them know that you need a bit of time out, or that you could really do with a chat or some company if you are feeling low.
It has been shown that deep breathing exercises have the capacity to calm the nervous system, reducing the likelihood of symptoms of anxiety. There are some great mobile apps which I find really helpful, such as Calm or Headspace. These exercises can be done on-the-go, and can fit into your schedule if you can find a quiet few minutes to yourself. In the past, I might have incorporated this into my day during the morning Underground commute, my lunch break, in my car before meeting relatives, or a quick bathroom break.
Mindfulness and yoga are other great practices which I have found really useful. From books (such as those by Ruby Wax, Bryony Gordon, Matt Haig or Danny Penman and Mark Williams), to DVDs (my personal favourite for beginners are those by Shiva Rea), to podcasts, and even YouTube videos, there are a range of resources which can benefit the mind without breaking the bank.
A little ‘me time’ is an essential element to my weekly schedule over the festive period. Whilst face masks and painting your nails might not seem appealing to everyone, there are other self-care practices which are universal. My personal favourites include: scented candles or an oil burner with essential oils (such as lavender), a hot bath or slightly-longer-than-usual showers, listening to a relaxing playlist put together and a digital detox that involves putting away the mobile phone for an hour or so. Combine this with a couple of pieces of dark chocolate, and it’s amazing how relaxed I feel. I recommend these activities in the evening, as a restful sleep is very important for restoring yourself for the following days.
Everyone has different things that they know makes them feel good and helps them relax or unwind. Whether that’s reading a book, doing a puzzle, going for a walk or taking a night out to pamper, like I like to do, make sure to make time for that, if you are able to. Even a few minutes a day can make a big difference.
Amidst the television adverts full of cheer, happy families and Christmas songs containing more cheese than the Boxing Day cheeseboard, we begin to feel like there’s something wrong if we aren’t living up to the representation of constant joyousness. If you are struggling with depression, you can feel even more isolated from the world.
It is important to remember that Christmas movies and retail advertising are often exaggerated versions of reality. As someone who has experienced periods of severe depression, I can promise you that you are not alone in how you feel. At any point, up to one in four adults have a mental health problem. The invisible nature of the illness – and the masks that we put on to get through the day – can just make it feel like you’re the only one feeling this way.
If you have friends and family members that you trust, make sure you let them know what you need. They may not be aware how difficult you find this time and may be able to support you more than you realise.
When you’re feeling low, lonely, overwhelmed or just need somewhere to turn to, there is always someone out there that you can speak to. The Samaritans are available 24/7 and there are online support networks, such as Elefriends, that you could find really helpful.
Stay strong and look after yourselves.
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