Managing a mental or physical health condition can be a challenge 365 days of the year. By the time you’ve settled into a routine of ‘just about managing’, it seems that winter has once again reappeared.
Falling temperatures are already a shock to the system and require extra energy to get you through the day. In addition to the extra layers of clothing that you need to put on (which, by the way, is pretty exhausting if you’re struggling with pain or fatigue), you are suddenly aware that the festive season is fast approaching. Whilst this is a season of cheer for many, this is not always the case – particularly if you are struggling with a mental health problem.
From navigating through crowded streets filled with stressed-out shoppers, to large social gatherings with relatives or colleagues, this time of year can feel like the ultimate sensory overload. In fact, when I picture my own sanctuary of inner zen (at the top of a mountain or overlooking the ocean) the reality of December living in London can feel like a whole other planet.
So what can you do to survive the festive season if you are struggling with a chronic health condition? How can you ward off panic attacks or manage your energy during a season which involves a constant stream of activity?
- Know that it’s ok to take time out
None of us like to admit defeat, but as humans we are not infallible. We are not machines that have a constant supply of electricity to keep us going for days on end. Just as each of us have our own personality traits or physical attributes, we also have a varying level of baseline energy. This is evident when thinking about sleep. Whilst some people can function on 4-6 hours of sleep (Margaret Thatcher and top CEOs are said to fall into this category), others (like myself) require a minimum of 8 hours or more.
With this baseline level of energy in mind, we must be kind to ourselves if we cannot hurtle ourselves through a hectic schedule without risking an almighty crash at the end. In the longer run, our immune systems are at greater risk to relapse into a worsened state of physical or mental health.
As such, know that it’s ok if you cannot attend everything, or stay until the end of the party. It’s ok to go for a short while, or to rearrange a smaller catch-up over a cup of coffee during the daytime.
- Find time each day to meditate or practice deep breathing exercises
It is scientifically proven that deep breathing exercises have the capacity to calm the nervous system, thus reducing the likelihood of symptoms of anxiety. There are some great mobile apps which can help, such as Calm or Headspace. These exercises can be done on-the-go, and can fit into your schedule if you can find a quiet few minutes to yourself. In the past, I might have incorporated this into my day during the morning Underground commute, my lunch break, in my car before meeting relatives, or a quick bathroom break.
Mindfulness and yoga are other great practices which, when repeated over time, can become incorporated into your daily life. From books (such as those by Ruby Wax, Bryony Gordon, Matt Haig or Danny Penman and Mark Williams), to DVDs (my personal favourite for beginners are those by Shiva Rea), to podcasts, and even YouTube videos, there are a range of resources which can benefit the mind without breaking the bank.
- Treat yourself to a pamper night
A little ‘me time’ is an essential element to my weekly schedule over the festive period. And these pamper nights are not just reserved for women. Whilst face masks and painting your nails might not seem appealing to everyone, there are other self-care practices which are universal. My personal favourites include: scented candles or an oil burner with essential oils (such as lavender), a hot bath or slightly-longer-than-usual showers, listening to a relaxing playlist put together on Spotify or Apple Music and a digital detox that involves putting away the mobile phone for an hour or so. Combine this with a couple of pieces of dark chocolate, and it’s amazing how relaxed you feel. I recommend these activities in the evening, as a restful sleep is very important for restoring yourself for the following days.
- Remember that you’re not the only one feeling overwhelmed
Amidst the television adverts full of cheer, and Christmas songs containing more cheese than the Boxing Day cheeseboard, we begin to feel like there’s something wrong if we aren’t living up to the representation of constant joyousness. If you are struggling with depression, you can feel even more isolated from the world.
It is important to remember that Christmas movies and retail advertising are often exaggerated versions of reality. As someone who has experienced periods of severe depression in the past, I can promise you that you are not alone in how you feel. Ok? At any point, up to one in four adults have a mental health problem. The invisible nature of the illness – and the masks that we put on to get through the day – can just make it feel like you’re the only one feeling this way.
- There are people who can help
Most importantly, remember that you are not alone in how you feel this Christmas, and there is always someone out there that you can speak to. The Samaritans are available 24/7 and you’ll find an online community of people also looking to reach out.
2018 is a new start with new opportunities. The festive season won’t last forever. Stay strong and look after yourselves.