Christmas is a great opportunity to see loved ones and spend time with friends and family. However, for many people it can be a stressful and lonely time of year. The hectic environment, pressure to both have a good time and provide for others, closely followed by the January blues, can all have a detrimental effect on one's mental health, particularly for those who already have a mental illness.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the factors that can have an impact on our mental health over Christmas, and discuss what you can do to ease the stress and strain the holiday period brings.

The family dynamic

When families gather over the festive period, in many cases this will involve people coming together who have not seen each other much over the year. So it’s natural for the expectation placed upon these occasions to be that everyone will be happy and enjoy each others company. But in reality, this can put additional tension on (what may be already strained) relationships.

There are so many variables that can upset a family dynamic over Christmas, so it can help to not expect perfect harmony. Being realistic and not dwelling too much over small or petty matters can help. However, if there are significant underlying issues between you and another family member, a useful step to take might be to discuss these in private (rather than in front of the entire family) before the big day, and try to clear the air.

Increased exposure to Christmas media

Another aspect of the season that can contribute to stress is sheer Christmas overload. The array of Christmas-themed advertising that we in the build-up to Christmas can feel overwhelming.

This increased exposure during the festive period can lead to irritability and a change in stress levels. A good example of how Christmas-based media can aggravate us is Christmas music. Our infographic presents a hypothesis from Victoria Williamson Ph. D (a researcher on the psychology of music) on how our enjoyment levels decrease the more we are exposed to Christmas music.

If you feel as though Christmas is getting on top of you, a good idea might be to step back, and try to spend some time away from it. This could be some time off visiting the shops or watching television. For example, spending a day walking outdoors in the countryside may provide some much-needed relief. (If friends accompany you, perhaps you can even make the walk a ‘Christmas-talk-free zone’.)

Monetary demands

A possible effect of exposure to Christmas advertising is the notion that one needs to spend a lot of money in order to satisfy the demands of the occasion. Buying gifts for a variety of people can lead to debt. According to a recent Mind survey from 2015, 41% of people with a mental illness put getting into debt as one of the reasons for struggling during the Christmas period.

It’s important to remember that gifts do not necessarily need to be expensive. Thinking about gifts which can give someone happiness and mean more to them, rather than having monetary value, is an approach which can allow you to manage the burden of spending on gifts. If you are hosting a large family gathering, don’t be afraid to say yes if a family member offers to contribute something - be it  a dessert, decorations or other accessories - to help share the load.

January blues

Lastly, once Christmas has finished, it can be difficult to adjust back to a normal regime, especially if you have a pre-existing mental illness. The contrast between the rush and socially hectic nature of the holidays to normal life can be drastic. Particularly if one has been stressed over the Christmas period, having drunken more alcohol, spent more money, slept less and experienced family conflict, it might not feel as though you’ve had a holiday at all. Many consider January to be the hardest month for these reasons, combined with the fact that it is often the coldest month of the year.

Even though money may be more scarce, a good way to approach January is to try and maintain a good level of social interaction, so it doesn’t feel as though you’re quickly transitioning from one extreme to the other. Keeping as active as you can and staying in touch with friends and family (and perhaps undertaking cheaper days out or excursions together) can help to ease the January blues.

The Samaritans are available to speak to if you would like emotional support and are feeling stressed by Christmas. Mind also has information on a variety of helplines for your particular circumstances.