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7 Ways To Be There For People Experiencing Mental Health Struggles This Christmas

While for many people, the festive period is 'the most wonderful time of the year', it is important to be aware that for many people, the Christmas period can be incredibly challenging.

People with disordered eating may struggle with celebrations that centre around food and drink; people with complicated home situations may have difficulty navigating the family expectations linked to the holidays; people with anxiety or depression may find it hard to 'put on a brave face' for social events; and many people report feelings of loneliness or financial strain... And this is not just the case for people who have diagnosed mental health conditions: in fact, one study found that almost 60% of people have experienced panic attacks over the festive period.

Close up of sparkly red bauble on christmas tree
It's nearly Christmas! But there will be some people who aren't feeling so sparkly...

In the final part of this blog post series, we look into different ways you can be there, and create a supportive environment, for people struggling with mental health difficulties over Christmas. These pointers apply all year round, but are especially important to keep in mind at this time of year.

If you personally are struggling with your mental health this festive season, feel free to check out last week's post, which covers 7 tips for managing your own emotional wellbeing.

Reach out to friends or family members who may be feeling isolated

Christmas can be a happy time. Christmas can be a hectic time. But for some people, Christmas can be an incredibly lonely time. For those of us that have lots on, it can be difficult to find the time to stop for a chat - but that chat could make a huge difference to someone who is feeling isolated. This is especially important this year, with so many people having to isolate away from their friends and families on Christmas day.

If someone has come to mind while you read this, and you have the time and energy to do so, consider reaching out to them at some point during the holiday period. This could be a phone call, or a Christmas card, or a Facebook message. Just let them know they aren't alone.

Woman in Santa hat wearing a blue disposable face mask.
It's been estimated that over 1 million people in the UK will be isolating this Christmas.

Do not make comments about food, weight, or diet

Roast turkey, mulled wine, pigs-in-blankets, prosecco, gingerbread houses... the festive season arguably revolves around food. And with the food comes the comments:

'Gotta burn off those mince pies'

'I hate to think about how much I've eaten today'

'Getting a bit of a belly - I'll look like Santa soon!'

'Christmas calories don't count!'

'Wow - are you really going to eat all that?!'

These kind of comments can be incredibly triggering for people struggling with disordered eating. Yes- even if you are only joking, or speaking about yourself- if someone around you is struggling with their relationship with food (and a lot of the time, you may not realise that someone close to you is struggling with this), this way of speaking can make it much harder for them to enjoy themselves, and could even result in a panic attack or emotional crisis.

Table set for dinner with red and green candles and a red checked table cloth.
We all love a good Christmas dinner - but it can be a great source of anxiety for people with eating disorders

Make plans and expectations clear

While the holidays can be manic, and a little spontaneity just adds to the magic, this can be incredibly anxiety-inducing for people struggling with their emotional wellbeing. Especially as COVID guidance is subject to shift at a day's notice, having some concrete plans (and back-up plans) may be just what is needed.

Focus on specifics: the time, the place, who else will be there, the dress-code or how cold it is likely to be, whether gifts or cards are expected, whether there will be food or drink, whether there is a back-up plan in case the original plan gets thwarted by new restrictions etc. Of course, this is not always feasible, and can seem a bit excessive - but it may make your anxious friend or family member much more relaxed in the run-up to a gathering (and may make a difference to whether they feel able to attend).

Pay attention to those around you

Keep your eyes open. Especially when Christmas celebrations are going on, it can be difficult for people to remove themselves from the situation or say that they are having trouble. Instead, they may appear quiet, or withdrawn, or irritable, or drink more than they would usually. Notice this, and be there.

Woman sitting alone next to a Christmas tree and wooden reindeer decoration, looking folorn
It's not unusual to feel flat around the holidays - some call it 'the holiday blues'.

Be understanding if they aren't able to put on a happy face

'Chin-up, grumpy guts!'

'Smile - it's Christmas time!'

'This is meant to be a happy day' how

Not only are these comments unlikely to actually put a genuine smile on someone's face, but they are also incredibly invalidating. It can be frustrating if you're trying to enjoy yourself but your friend has a face like sour milk, but do your best to be sensitive. If you aren't able to manage your own emotions in this scenario, work on your own boundary-setting, rather than trying to force someone else to smother their feelings.

Give them permission to put themselves first

This doesn't just go for people that you know are struggling with their mental health - nobody should feel that they aren't allowed to take time for themselves - even over Christmas. If someone says they aren't sure if they're feeling up to a holiday activity, let them know that that's absolutely okay (don't try and persuade them to push through - as much as you might think they'll enjoy it once they get going). Nobody owes anyone anything (not a smile, not a gift, not an hour of their time). Giving people the permission to put themselves first might give them a much-needed opportunity to recharge so that they can enjoy other activities.

Offer your help (if you are able to)

If someone close to you seems to be having a rough time, consider offering your help. Evaluate your own availability (in terms of both time and emotional energy) beforehand. You may do this by asking if there is anything you can do, or by offering help with specific tasks. The latter is preferable because it gives you the chance to select the assistance you feel able to provide, and also may be easier for the recipient to accept (often, if you ask 'how can I help?' the answer will just be 'I don't know').

Some examples of help you may be able to offer: a spare pair of hands wrapping gifts or preparing Christma s dinner; an excuse if they need to duck out of a family event; or a plus-one to a party they're dreading.

Snow cleared to show red writing: 'Merry Christmas', with pine decorations.
Merry Christmas from all of us at Three Little Birds!

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