Mental Wellbeing in the build up to Christmas

This is the Rusty Siren guide to keeping your spirits up in the build up to Christmas with some mental health tips.  I don’t personally like to think about Christmas before the middle of December but these days I’ve found it is in our faces as soon as Halloween is over.  Evidence suggests that mental illness may increase at Christmas, this is my personal guide to dealing with the whole Christmas thing with minimal stress.

The challenges of this time of year are obvious and well known:

Money.  This has become an expensive festival and the pressure is on to spend more and more.  When we feel obliged to spend more than we have this is a huge source of stress.  Several years ago I had a chat with my family.  We decided to cut back on presents.  We all know we love each other so we don’t unconsciously try to measure love by present monetary value.  Family policy now is children get bigger presents adults get a token present.  Homemade presents are very welcome. We’re all relieved and happy with this.

Time.  Lots of us find ourselves working extra hours to get the extra money we need which then obviously leaves us less time to do the Christmas shopping.  My answer is to start the planning and organising early (hence why I’m writing this now).  I know this will annoy some people; I used to get irritated by the organised types who had Christmas all sewn up when I was just starting to panic around the 20th of December!   I’ve now joined their ranks.  I’ve also caught up with the rest of you in the 21st century and do some of my shopping on-line.  The earlier start leaves longer for the gifts to arrive.  For the shopping I can’t get on-line I plan shopping expeditions in the local towns.  I start early and generally have a loose plan of what I will get and where I will get it.  When it goes well I reward myself with a gift too!  There have been times when I’ve not managed to get a single present but still got myself a gift.

Also, about now is when I start to think about posting any cards which need to go overseas.

Perfect-family-syndrome.  The television is full of adverts for Christmas now.  Often a perfect family is shown; the beautiful couple with the happy children whose life is made even happier by the perfect Christmas they are having.  If that’s you then you have my best wishes and I am truly glad for you and hope you have a fantastic time.  Most of us at some point fall short of that ideal scene. As a divorced dad my Christmases have been a little different.  When my children were younger I used to feel guilty that I had deprived them of this perfect Christmas.   Often my shift pattern has meant that I have been working on Christmas day or Christmas night.  The way we got round this was to plan a day near Christmas when we had our own Christmas.  I came to love our alternative Christmas days.  The kids are adult now but we still enjoy our custom.

Through working the Christmas period I know that a lot of people feel increasingly lonely and depressed at this time – I think this is made worse by the Perfect-family-syndrome pushed by the advertisers.  It’s important to remember that a lot of people also feel lonely and low at this time of year and that it isn’t unusual.  Times when I’ve been alone on the day itself I’ve still planned treats for myself – nice food and tried to have a relaxing day and included a nice walk in the fresh air.

The years where Tony and I are working Christmas day we each bring a microwave Christmas dinner so when we get our 30 minutes on station we can still feel quite festive.  I generally eat all the mince pies, Tony doesn’t really like them!

Extended time with family. During the holiday period we tend to spend more time than we are used to with our families.  Much as we love them, this may also cause increased stress.  Then as the anxiety rises and patience levels drop we feel guilty for feeling like this when we’ve probably been looking forward to spending this time with our loved ones and feel that we shouldn’t feel like this.  It’s good to take a realistic view at times like this. It’s natural that there will be tension when spending more time than we usually do with our families, especially if staying at their house and adapting to their routines.  This is part of being a human.  When this has happened to me I just accept that this is natural and I rely on my go-to remedy for everything: I go for a walk and practice my relaxation techniques.

Despite what it might look like from above I do love Christmas.  I’m a big kid at heart and love all the shiny lights and decorations.  I do think people are kinder and more loving to each other for a brief period of the year.  Regardless of spiritual or religious views I think we all think more about loving and giving at this time of year.

I hope you all have a relaxed and stress free build up to Christmas (It’s way too early to wish Merry Christmas yet!).

Keeping my mind tuned up.

This blog is about my mind and what I do to keep it healthy and to expand my brain. I like to read other blogs about how people manage to keep their minds healthy and active.  If we all share tips like this we can all maybe help each other a bit. I want to stress that this describes things which work for me.  I’m fortunate that I’m basically healthy mentally; all I suffer is the occasional low mood and some social anxiety.  If you suffer with the more serious conditions then I’m sure you realise that it’s expert professional help you need.

I’m not a mental health professional.  I want to stress that.  As a paramedic I’ve very little training in mental health, surprising when you consider how many cases we go to where mental health is the chief complaint.  I am however becoming an expert on me and my mind.  I’ve utmost respect for mental health professionals and always stress that if you have problems you shouldn’t hesitate to get professional help but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to be a professional to help someone.  Just by being there and being prepared to listen and support someone can help a great deal.  Just listen without judging and without even trying to ‘fix’ things.  That may be enough to help a person through a crisis.  Encourage them and support them if necessary to go for professional help.

Talk about things on your mind.  We all know this one but don’t all do it.  I’m as bad as anyone at bottling things up but it really helps to have a few trusted friends in your circle who you feel comfortable talking to.  This next bit probably sounds a bit wrong but I think there comes a point where you have talked about some troubling event and continuing to go round in circles talking or thinking about it will make things worse.  There comes a point when you’ve analysed the event, learned from it, when you have to accept that you can’t change it or make it ‘un-happen’ by continuing to ruminate on it.  This is the point where you have to accept that it happened (I’m not saying that the event is acceptable.  It may be totally unacceptable and terrible but the fact is it has happened and you can’t change that, so it helps to accept that it happened).  This can be the difficult bit and where professional help may be needed. Once you’ve accepted it, maybe you can come up with a plan to improve things.  I found this the hard way: I had a particular problem I kept alive for 6 months by constant rumination and trying to analyse it.  Eventually I got so sick of it I just accepted it.  That was a huge weight off for me and I actually started to move on then.

It’s important not to ignore uncomfortable feelings and emotions.  In the past I’ve done this.  I’ve used distraction to take my mind off feelings it would have been better to face.  Thankfully my coping mechanisms weren’t too destructive.  I’ve avoided excessive alcohol and drugs but have watched many hours of mindless TV and read countless novels just to distract myself.  The thing is these feelings don’t just go away.  Experts tell us they hang around just out of sight (repressed), possibly building strength and cause problems from behind the scenes later (unexplained low moods or bursts of emotion at random triggers).  Now when faced with an uncomfortable or painful emotion I make a bit of time for myself and just feel it. It’s ok to cry at this point if you feel like it (I find this hard but they say it’s healthy and can be a relief). I concentrate on nice slow, deep, abdominal breathing and feel the feeling.  I try not to think about it or describe it to myself, just concentrate on feeling it and breathing.  If I find my mind starting to think about it, judge it or describe the feeling I focus once more on my breathing. I find that it passes after a while and doesn’t seem to cause problems later.  Sometimes the feeling may come back again but I just feel it again – it seems to be less intense and unpleasant the second and any subsequent times.  To date this had been successful for me.

This is the time of year when Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD (isn’t that an appropriate acronym?)) may start to take effect (here in the UK).  It causes the typical symptoms of depression and is associated with the shorter, darker days of autumn (fall) and winter.  The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood but it is thought that reduced exposure to light affects the way part of the brain (hypothalamus) works.  It may cause: over production of melatonin, the hormone which makes you feel sleepy and tired; under production of serotonin, the chemical which provides a feeling of well being.  The lower exposure to light is also thought to affect the natural sleep cycle (circadian rhythm) leading to symptoms of depression.  The self help methods for tackling SAD are quite logical.  Try to make the most of what natural daylight there is.  Spend time outside when you can, couple this with exercise – a nice long walk – and you increase the benefits.  Exercise on its own should help with the symptoms of low mood, even if it’s not outside.  Make sure you have a healthy diet.  Some people find artificial light helps; there are ‘natural light’ bulbs you can get for lamps which are said to help.  You can get special ‘light boxes’ which are very bright lights, I’ve never tried these.

Music always helps me.  Most of the time at home I have the radio on rather than the TV (I’m listening to ‘princess of the night’ by Saxon at the moment).  My taste in music isn’t to everyone’s taste but it really helps me.  I have various playlists on my phone of specific, upbeat rock songs guaranteed to help lift me in just about any situation.

To finish, I feel incredibly grateful for my life, I’m very lucky to be healthy, have a wonderful family and partner and feel I’m generally blessed.  My Grandma always told me to ‘count my blessings’ and I think that old advice about focussing on what is going right in your life and being thankful for it really helps to keep positive.

I wish you all health, relaxation, peace of mind and contentment.