Stacy Hurley

Stacy Hurley

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Before I begin this topic, I just want to say how grateful I am for the opportunity to write this column for my hometown paper, The Dundalk Eagle. I thank Dan, the editor, for believing in the concept and presenting it to be approved.

I don’t know about you, but I simply can’t believe that another year has come and gone. The good news is we weren’t locked down like last year and that felt good. I know that despite the vaccines and boosters, there are variants running wild, but we must try to be hopeful and continue to move forward.

The holidays (whatever you celebrate) can be an exhausting and emotionally draining time for people, but it can be especially overwhelming for those with already existing mental health issues. We are constantly told the holidays are a time of “good cheer” and “peace, comfort and hope”, but we must remember that not everyone feels that way, maybe it’s you.

“Mental health issues at Christmas affect more of us than you might think. A survey from YouGov found that a quarter of people say that Christmas makes their mental health worse, while a survey from the Mental Health Foundation found that 54% of people were worried about the mental health of someone they know at Christmas," according to the Priory Group.

“According to the American Psychological Association, 38% of people surveyed said their stress increased during the holiday season, which can lead to physical illness, depression, anxiety, and substance misuse. The reasons given: lack of time, financial pressure, gift-giving, and family gatherings. To make matters worse, the National Alliance on Mental Illness noted that 64% of individuals living with a mental illness felt that their conditions worsened around the holidays,” according to McLean Hospital.

The pressures from social media, family, TV (stay away from the Hallmark Channel) and commercialism is enough to make even the strongest go weak. I believe that we have forgotten what the true meaning of the holiday is – to help others in need, share a meal or simply reach out with a card, call or text.

It is not about “Black Friday” deals and getting more stuff. I know I personally need to get rid of stuff… I must be honest and say that this year, I personally have mixed feelings and the song, “Where are you, Christmas?” hit home for me. Not sure why, but the change in time, that it gets dark earlier, the cold weather…it all just seems to affect me. I honestly think that the idea of the “Christmas holiday” was created simply because of the sadness we can feel during this time of year.

According to Mind, a mental health-centered charity in England, “whether or not Christmas is part of your life, your mental health might be affected by it happening around you. It’s a time of year that often puts extra pressure on us and can affect our mental health in lots of different ways.

For example, if you:

  • feel alone or left out because everyone else seems happy when you’re not
  • wish you didn’t have to deal with Christmas or find it stressful because of other events in your life
  • feel frustrated by other people’s views of a ‘perfect’ Christmas, if these feel different to your experiences
  • want to celebrate with someone who’s struggling.
  • “Listening to other people’s exciting plans makes me feel like an alien being, as I don’t have all those wonderful relationships in my life.

The festive period could affect your mental health in other ways too. For example:

  • Your mental health problem might make it hard for you to spend Christmas how you want.
  • Difficult and stressful experiences at Christmas could make your mental health worse.
  • Enjoying Christmas might also affect your mental health, for example if it triggers hypomania or mania.
  • It can be harder to access services that normally help you. Some of these services may be closed during the Christmas period.
  • Your experiences of last Christmas, during the coronavirus restrictions, may affect how you feel about this Christmas.
  • If you celebrate other religious festivals or holidays, you may feel overlooked if it feels like Christmas is given special attention.
  • New Year may also feel like a hard time, if it makes you look back at difficult memories or worry about anything in the coming year.”

If any of these things are/feel true for you, don’t worry, because there are things that you can do that might help. First, we need to remember that the holidays are different for everyone, and we need to accept and respect that.

I have learned not to ask certain questions like, “did you have a great Christmas”, “what did Santa bring you?” but rather asking them how they are doing/feeling and how they are coping.

“Reducing the stigma behind mental health is a great step forward for everyone, creating a safe space is more important than a ‘perfect’ Christmas.” (Boris MacKey, 2021)

According to Kathi Cameron from activebeat.com, here are some simple tips for a less stressful holiday season.

1. Get enough sleep, anything between 7-9 hours.

2. Eat your vegetables, with all the sugary goodies around, your body will need some!

3. Go for a walk or get some other exercise. I know that I need this one for myself.

4. Just say “NO”. Establishing these boundaries for yourself is the best thing for sure. I have practiced this a lot this year. My “FOMO” (fear of missing out) has reduced for the better.

5. Avoid setting the standard of perfection. I gave this up a long time ago as well. When we look for the “perfect” holiday experience based on unrealistic expectations, we are not living mindfully and enjoying each moment as they come.

6. Set a budget. For some of you it may already be too late since Christmas is only 4 days away, but there is always next year. Maybe plan to only give DIY gifts, or get everything from a secondhand store, make the plan your own.

7. Schedule downtime for yourself. Baking cookies, filling out Christmas cards, decorating, shopping, wrapping…. can all be exhausting, so be sure to give yourself some self-care.

8. It’s okay to give yourself permission to avoid or skip the holidays. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just want a “Christmas with the Kranks.”

9. Lastly, give in other ways. “The most meaningful gifts are the gifts of time and attention. Giving experiences may be more beneficial than giving things. Moreover, giving to those less fortunate is a great way of helping our neighbors while benefiting from health benefits that comes with giving. Remember, the spirit of giving isn’t about how much we spend but how much of ourselves we give to others.” (Kathi Cameron, 2021)

In closing, I want to wish everyone a restful and mindful holiday season. Take this opportunity to share in positive memories, enjoy new fun times, create new holiday rituals/traditions and LIVE IN THE MOMENT! You only get them once.

Here are some resources on the topic that you may find helpful:

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