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Surviving the festive season

Tips for looking after your mental wellbeing


Christmas, as the song goes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Or is it? Whether it’s general feelings of overwhelm at your to do list, a heightened sense of loneliness during a time many spend with loved ones or dealing with loss or grief at a traditionally happy time, the festive season can bring mixed emotions.

We asked Valion Health’s Mental Health Coach, Margaret Bourke why people might not feel merry and bright at this time of year and some tips for dealing with it.


Preventing overwhelm

Christmas can bring with it a hefty to do list. The extra time needed for shopping, wrapping presents and a busy social calendar (not to mention Elf on the Shelf!) can be a lot to juggle, and all while staying in the ‘Christmas spirit’!

This additional responsibility, plus the financial juggle, means that while some people thrive on festive chaos, it may not be so magical for others. Add a dose of social media into the mix with its carefully curated images of happy families and festive settings, and it’s easy to see how it can become overwhelming.

So, if feelings of stress or anxiety are overshadowing those of peace and goodwill, it’s important to:

1. Plan ahead
Whether it’s setting budgets, delegating tasks or being selective about which social events to attend, be honest with yourself and others about what you want to achieve and what’s achievable. Knowing what you’re committing to and what to expect will relieve worry and stress about the unknown.

2. Be merry in moderation
To help ensure you enjoy the party season, know your limits and plan wisely. Remember, less can be more so you don’t waste valuable energy or overindulge in the excesses of Christmas! Prioritise your invitations rather than over committing, so you’re able to really enjoy positive experiences.

3. Know your 'why'
Work out your reasons why you and your family do Christmas the way you do. Is it still the best way or is a change due? You don’t need to be perfect so take some of the pressure off, share the load, keep it simple and be flexible (and don’t worry about what Auntie Marge might think!).

4. Try to look on the bright side
Things not quite going to plan? Not happy with a gift? Try not to dwell on what you don’t have. Being thankful for what you do have will also mean you’re able to handle any family tensions much more easily. Don’t forget this also includes being kind to yourself.

5. Connect (if you’re up to it)
Sometimes, making the effort to connect when we least feel like it can be one of the best moves we make. Reaching out to others can help to manage any loneliness or sadness that creeps in around Christmas from becoming too disabling (more on that below).

6. Rest when you can
Try to build in time for YOU amongst the festivities. This will help you maintain (or regain!) a healthy balance for mind and body. Take regular breaks and allow time for exercise, meditation, or whatever it is that works for you. And speaking of holidays, why not take a break from digital devices?


Dealing with feelings of loneliness

It’s easy to feel the impact of loneliness at Christmas and during holidays because we’re surrounded by sights and sounds of festivities and celebrations where people get together. Comparing our own situation to what’s going on around us can make our own loneliness seem more intense.

There are many reasons for feelings of loneliness at Christmas – not having friends or family around, living away from home for the first time, language or cultural barriers, the list goes on. You can also feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by people, whether that’s due to strained family relationships, dysfunctional family dynamics or something else. And while statistically older people are most likely to be affected, feelings of loneliness can touch anyone.

Remember, there’s no need to feel embarrassed and there are lots of things you can do to help overcome feelings of loneliness, both during the festive season and throughout the year.

1. Keep busy
Carry on doing things you enjoy, to help lift your mood. And while normal routines may take a break during the holidays, it’s important to have structure in your daily schedule to ensure as much certainty as possible.

2. Connect with others
This might feel like an effort but having a conversation with someone each day can help you feel better (and you might even make someone else’s day too!). It’s important to remember that lonely people don't usually reach out to do this, so we should all remember to offer this connection.

3. Try volunteering
Volunteering can be a great way to connect. It can also help you feel worthwhile and valued through your contribution. But if volunteering isn’t for you, there are plenty of ways to make new connections – join a club, organisation or online community for your special interest.

4. Keep moving
Physical activity can help to boost energy levels and avoid rumination (constant or repetitive thoughts about something) or catastrophizing. Why not try a walk in a park or at the beach? You’ll get some fresh air, boost your endorphins, and maybe meet some new people on your travels.

5. Cuddle a furry friend
If you or someone you know has a pet, spending time with them can provide great companionship and improve your physical and mental health. You could even offer to take a neighbour’s dog for a walk. Talking about pets is also a great conversation starter when you meet other animal lovers.

6. Get help when you need it
Most importantly, remember there’s a whole lot of support out there. So don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need it:

  • Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 (24 hours/7 days a week)
  • FriendLine (seniors) 1800 424 287 (Mon – Fri 6pm – 8pm)
  • MensLine Australia (men) 1300 78 99 78 (24 hours/7 days a week)
  • Lifeline 13 11 14 (24 hours/7 days a week)
  • If your life is in danger call 000


A time for grieving as well

As people get together during the festive season it can make the absence of a loved one more noticeable, whether it’s a recent loss you’re feeling or someone you lost many years ago. Grief doesn’t necessarily mean a death – you can feel the loss of someone for different reasons.

The festive season will be different if you’re dealing with loss or grief but it’s important to remember that it’s still okay to laugh and have fun, there’s no right or wrong way to grieve.

1. Honour your lost loved one
It could include creating a new tradition or ritual such as displaying a personalised decoration, gathering at a special place to light a candle, or sharing a memory at Christmas dinner. If the person you’ve lost has passed away, you may like to visit the cemetery or special place of remembrance.

2. Share your feelings
Talk with other people about your thoughts and feelings of the person you’ve lost. Take time to remember them – don't bottle them up or try to deal with them on your own. Seek the support of others by swapping stories and memories.

3. Enjoy memories
If you can, turn the things that trigger your grief into opportunities to enjoy rich memories which will bring joy, humour, or pride. While grief doesn’t stop for Christmas, celebration and grief can coexist. But remember to be patient with yourself (and others) as this can take time.

4. Make time for yourself
Allow time for you and your own personal reflection. Whether it’s during a walk by yourself or visiting a loved one’s grave or special place, keep it real and remember both the good times and the challenges.

5. Avoid excess
Be mindful of trying to alleviate your grief with things like alcohol, potentially addictive substances, emotional eating, or excessive spending, as this will only make you feel worse in the long run. If you think this could be an issue for you, chat to friends, family, your GP, or other health professional.


Looking forward

We recognise that even with coping strategies and the best will in the world, the festive season will be difficult for some. So this Christmas and New Year, focus on you and the things that are in your control – a nourishing diet, physical activity for the mind and body, good quality sleep and regular check-ups with your health professionals. Give yourself time to feel less festive than the hype would have you believe and know that with a little self-care and the right support, things can (and often will) get better.


Written by Teachers Health Staff Writer, Contribution by Margaret Bourke, Mental Health Coach, Valion Health