Mental Health & The Holiday Season

Written by Aaron Azariah. Aaron is a placement student with OTLR currently completing his Master of Counselling at the University of Notre Dame in Perth, Western Australia.

December marks the start of the holiday season, with Christmas preparations kicking into full swing and plans for New Years and any upcoming January holiday getaways taking up large portions of our time. This time round, our plans are largely impacted by COVID-19, and many of us find ourselves not being able to make our usual trips to be with loved ones over the holiday season. Some of us may have cancelled travel plans for upcoming holidays and now face spending most of the December/January holidays at home. This highlights an important point – that for many of us, the holiday season has not always been about the fun, glamour and laughter so often portrayed. It can be easy to feel isolated when social media bombards us with posts of other people’s celebrations and events, and if our own plans don’t measure up to this, we may question ourselves and our position in life. This is also true for those who are experiencing homelessness, substance abuse or mental health struggles. 

Research sends slightly mixed messages regarding the holiday season and mental health. Initially, research suggested that the Christmas period may increase depression and suicide rates, however, more recent research challenges this. Some studies suggest that the summer months lead to a slight increase in depression. Most of this research has been conducted overseas, and in Australia, we celebrate Christmas and New Year’s early in the summer season. This can often bring the added stress of planning holidays, having kids at home, or feeling lonely, on top of the stress the festive season may bring. The prolonged holidays and the feeling of our lives not measuring up to what we expected or planned, or the stresses around organizing holidays and losing track of our usual well-being routine may all combine and become overwhelming. In this state, we become more vulnerable to unhelpful thoughts, and can feel the weight of the situation a little more than we otherwise would. There are some simple things we can do to help stay on top of our mental health and wellbeing, not just during the holiday season, but year-round.

The following may be helpful to raise awareness of potential risks to our mental health, to help cope and manage any stress that arises, and to help get back on track when facing a mental health challenge.

  1. Social Media Exposure – This has become ever-increasing in its importance, as spending too much time scrolling through feeds can often lead us to draw comparisons between ourselves and others and maybe even develop a diminished sense of self-worth and overall happiness. This is more important if we are aware of our own mental health challenges that may increase this risk. It can be easy to feel like our plans or the state of our lives is lacking in comparison to the portrayed fun and vibrancy often displayed at this time of year, often leading us to feel lonely. 

To help manage these risks we can limit time spent on social media. This can be hard to do, especially if we want to see what our friends/family are up to or look at photos from an event we were unable to attend. It is important to remember that too much exposure can contribute to disappointment and feelings of loneliness. Limiting the time spent scrolling through socials and finding ways to enjoy ourselves in our current surroundings may help reduce the risks to our mental health and help us stay grounded in the present. 

  1. Overindulgence – The festive season often brings with it an increase in food and alcohol consumption, and while it can be great to have a break from the usual routine and enjoy the party atmosphere, research has documented a trend in weight gain for both self-motivated individuals and those experiencing obesity across adult populations. This increase in weight can become a source of stress once festivities are quietening down which may also result in decreased mood into the new year. The effect of this is amplified if overindulgence is used as a form of coping.

A tip to stay on top of this can be to remain accountable to someone – If you are aware that overeating/drinking is a coping mechanism for stress, ask a family member or friend to check-in with you to help you stay on track with your health goals. This can be important if you have been working to make improvements in these areas, be it weight loss or overindulgence as a coping mechanism. Few things feel worse than realizing that you have just undone weeks or months of hard work, so have a trusted person check-in with you and be accountable to them through this period and enjoy the festivities in healthy moderation.

  1. Isolation & Disappointment– The feeling of being alone is shared by many around the nation, particularly this year, with travel still being impacted by COVID-19. Isolation can result from a variety of factors – homelessness, substance abuse, financial struggle, depression and anxiety. This can be heightened by the commercialisation of the holiday season that often leads us to set unrealistic expectations of what our ‘perfect’ holiday season should look like. This can often make our current situation seem helpless if we can’t meet these expectations, and often bring to the forefront the challenges we have been facing through the year, making them seem overwhelming. 

Something we can do in almost any situation is to look for new ways to connect with peopleIt can be easy to focus on what we don’t have, particularly if everyone else seems to be having a good time, or we are wishing things were like they were without COVID. Different situations usually bring different opportunities and perhaps this is an opportunity to engage with the holiday season in a way we never have before. Getting involved with local clubs/charities over the holidays not only directly helps others who may struggle through this time but can also improve your own mental health. Perhaps our neighbours are also isolated due to current circumstances and maybe this year provides an opportunity to connect and share festivities with them. Christmas is a time of sharing and embodying peace, and there is much evidence to show that helping others promotes positive psychological and physiological responses in ourselves. Finding ways to connect with, share and help others can be a great way to help boost mood and alleviate stress during the holiday season.

  1. Disengagement from Wellbeing Routine – It is easy to get caught up in the busyness of the summer months and lose track of our usual self-care and wellness routines. It can be easy to skip exercise sessions, cancel appointments with health professionals and sleep less during this time of year. All of which can be detrimental to our mental health. 

Make a conscious effort to Commit to your self-careTry to avoid rescheduling health and wellbeing activities. Keep appointments with counsellors/psychologists where possible and schedule time for yourself to engage with your self-care and exercise routine. This helps reinforce the healthy habits you have already been practicing and can help keep you feeling good heading into the new year. 

The increased social engagement can work as a protective factor for people experiencing mental health challenges such as depression, however, the following quieter period of time once all the festivities fade may pose an increased risk to mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. Keeping on top of our mental health and wellbeing during the holiday season can set us up to move into the new year in a more positive mental state. 

If You Need Help

If things become overwhelming, remember that support is still available through the holiday season. Services such as Lifeline (13 11 14) and Headspace are still active over the holidays and are able to offer support if required. The welfare team at OTLR may also be able to offer support through the OTLR app, however, please remember we are not a critical response service and you should always call 000 in case of an emergency.

References

Rolando G. Díaz-Zavala, María F. Castro-Cantú, Mauro E. Valencia, Gerardo Álvarez-Hernández, Michelle M. Haby, Julián Esparza-Romero, “Effect of the Holiday Season on Weight Gain: A Narrative Review”, Journal of Obesity, vol. 2017, Article ID 2085136, 13 pages, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/2085136

https://www.beyondblue.org.au/personal-best/pillar/supporting-yourself/coping-with-christmas

https://www.adavic.org.au/PG-health-tips-dealing-with-depression-and-loneliness-during-christmas.aspx

Hofstra, E., Elfeddali, I., Bakker, M., . . . van der Feltz-Cornelis, C. M. (2018). Springtime peaks and christmas troughs: A national longitudinal population-based study into suicide incidence time trends in the Netherlands. Frontiers in Psychiatry, February. DOI : https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00045.

https://www.webmd.com/balance/features/science-good-deeds#1

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