I’ve been thinking about Christmas, mental health and mindfulness recently. It struck me that this season is a time when even people who don’t usually struggle with stress, anxiety or depression could be more at risk of that negative spiral of difficult thoughts and moods.
Apart from anything else, it’s easy for self-care and mindfulness to get lost in the hubbub of Christmas. Many of us have family to navigate and to-do lists that fill every spare minute. Late nights and indulging in rich food and more alcohol than usual can also affect our moods. Then there’s the additional pressure to make the festivities extra special, to match how we are told Christmas ‘should’ be.
Finding that mental space and consciously managing our wellbeing is extra important at this time of year. These tips are based in the Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy approach. I find it helpful to keep them in mind at Christmas.
Catch yourself making comparisons
The media spends December telling us how our Christmas ‘should’ look. For well over a month, we are bombarded with images and ideas about what the perfect day should be. No one is lonely, no families fight and everyone is cosily wrapped up in warm woollen knits. The most untoward thing that might happen is a teenager won’t wear his Christmas hat, or a mother gets slightly flustered over the turkey. Never mind though, everything is almost instantly resolved with a hug and a rueful look.
And we all respond by sharing our own creations on social media. This picture of me in a woolly scarf drinking a mulled wine matches how things ‘should’ be at Christmas. Look, my experiences matches!
So when watching adverts or scanning social media makes you feel jealous or inadequate, remember that we are being forced to measure our experiences against something fake – and when they fall short, we can easily make ourselves feel worse by allowing that negative spiral of thoughts and judgements to get in.
A sure-fire path to a stressful Christmas is to build a picture of perfection in your mind, a list of ‘shoulds’ that you struggle to live up to. Instead of trying to create perfection and beating yourself up when you fail, take a ‘good enough’ approach. Lower your standards and embrace imperfection. Focus on the good rather than worrying about the not quite right.
Thinking rigidly means you are less able to cope when something goes wrong. Be prepared for things to turn out differently to how you pictured them to be. Different doesn’t mean worse. Be open to change.
Create a mantra
A mantra is just something to come back to, something to ground yourself when you’re feeling stressed and emotions are running high. It could be “I’m not going to let myself get sucked into this comparison game again, I’m comparing my experience to something that doesn’t exist” or “be gentle, think flexibly” or “embrace imperfection”. Whatever works for you. The point is to step outside your current situation for a moment and remind yourself of the bigger picture.
Use the noise
Christmas is notoriously noisy – but you can turn this to your advantage. Practice using any loud noise as a remind yourself to check in with how you are feeling in yourself right now and to take a few long deep breaths.
Start again and again
Mindfulness is sometimes described as the practice of starting again and again. During mindful meditation we regularly notice our thoughts have wandered and, each time, we gently bring our minds back to the awareness of the body.
If something goes wrong or everything blows up, it’s easy to think we’ve failed and to give up. But there are always going to be trickier times. That’s life. It doesn’t mean we can’t start looking after ourselves again, from this moment.
Be gentle and don’t judge yourself
Perhaps most importantly - don’t judge yourself if you do find yourself making comparisons, getting stressed or forgetting to take some time for yourself. Even just recognising the importance of caring for your mental health at Christmas is a step in the right direction.