Christmas and Mental Health
Unless you are a hermit and never go out, you have already seen the Christmas decorations festooning the stores and malls around our city. If you need another reminder that the “Festive Season” is upon us, waking up to snow on the lower slopes of the hills around Penticton this weekend would be it!
Unfortunately, for so many, this time of celebration actually brings upon feelings of dread. Christmas is an emotionally loaded time for many people. For those who have lost loved ones, it can be a very poignant and lonely time. The first Christmas without a loved one is especially hard. If you know anyone who is in this situation, reach out to them and let them know you are thinking about them. If you are going through this, try not to isolate yourself.
For divorced families, dividing time between different homes is hard, and children can feel very torn between their parents - even as adults. It is important for the adults to raise their game and put aside their differences. Please do not use your children as pawns for emotional blackmail and striking out at your ex. That is a game where everyone loses.
Christmas is also a time when so many people feel trapped into spending hours around a table with people that they do not like and haven't seen all year due to family problems. For those who have difficult family dynamics (and who doesn’t?) it can be awkward fielding questions about who they will be spending the holiday with. Not everyone has “perfect” high achieving children! Be careful how you ask people about the holidays - think of those who have the tragedy of children who are addicted to drugs for example. They are often upset and feeling shame and embarrassment and don't know how to share about this.
There is a commonly held belief that Christmas is the peak time for suicides. This is actually not true, but what does peak is the incidence of depression and worsening depression from November through December. This goes back to the normal level by late January. If you are suffering from depression, blue moods, or sad thoughts that are becoming overwhelming, please contact your family doctor or mental health worker for help.
If you are not a natural extrovert, attending a lot of functions at Christmas time can be tiring and stressful too. Decide in advance which you really want to attend and politely make your apologies to the others. Most people understand that it is not possible to be at every party.
Keeping a routine as much as possible is helpful too. Keep your sleep routine as close to normal as you can . Make sure you take any prescription medications regularly through the season. Check your bottles to see if you have enough pills to get you through to January as your doctor is likely to be harder to get into than usual, due to all the holidays. Take your vitamin D!
For people in the Okanagan, a very real contributor to low mood during the Christmas season, is Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is a low mood caused by poor levels of natural light, a big deal in Penticton, where the clouds can sit low over our valley for what seems like weeks on end! People who have SAD are typically not down during the summer months but sink into sadness or depression as winter progresses. Using a special light lamp every morning can help. Going outdoors anytime there is sunshine is a natural mood booster too. Driving up the mountain to walk or snowshoe in the winter sun is a great way of perking up! Taking adequate vitamin D all winter is protective as well.
Another major stress at Christmas is related to finances. There is such pressure to buy “perfect” gifts and preferably lots of them! So many people spend excessively over the season and run up huge bills. Have a chat with your family and friends and set limits. Many families, especially those with adult children, have modified the gift exchange extravaganza to giving just one gift per person. Others have gone even further and have stopped giving gifts in favour of making a donation to a favourite charity. Making homemade gifts such as cookies makes giving personal and inexpensive. DO draw up a budget and stick to it! Pre-Christmas stress only gets worse in January with the arrival of those credit card bills and the accompanying heartsinking feeling.
Staying on top of healthy nutrition will help you deal with the stresses of the season. Try to eat simple nourishing meals every day. Inexpensive vegetable soups and stews will fill you up and taste delicious. Make up a big batch and freeze so that there is always something to eat even on the most hectic day.
Enjoy yourself when you go out - take the night off and stop talking about the “diet” you are supposed to be on. One or two parties do not make you fat. But - don’t use the occasional party as an excuse for a month long fat and sugar binge! If you are going to eat chocolate, avoid the cheap boxed chocolates that are full of high fructose corn syrup and other chemicals. I suggest savouring one or two perfect delicious high quality chocolates and forget the guilt!
Finally, to reduce the unrealistic expectations of a mythical perfect Christmas, it helps to stop focusing inward and look to others. If you are lucky enough to have plenty, invite a friend or colleague to lunch or dinner. Volunteer somewhere to put things into perspective. Get family and friends together and clean out your closets for good used blankets and warm clothes to donate to the Cover with Kindness drive organized by Greg Litwin - maybe even buy a few pairs of thick socks next time you are buying groceries and donate those too.