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Looking after your mental wellbeing this Christmas

Tips for dealing with anxiety, sadness or depression

Contribution by Rebecca Van Lloy, Clinical Psychologist and Mental Health Coach, Valion Health


Christmas is a wonderful time of year for many people, but it can be a challenging one too. Amongst the festive buzz, the approaching holiday period can bring with it rising levels of anxiety, and even feelings of sadness or depression.

We asked Valion Health’s Mental Health Coach and Clinical Psychologist, Rebecca Van Lloy for some tips for looking after your mental wellbeing this festive season.


Recognise the signs

Mental health conditions are common, with around 1 in 2 people in Australia struggling with their mental health during their lifetime [1]. But life can be busy, especially during the holidays, so it can be easy to ignore how symptoms are affecting you. Rebecca says that knowing some of the common symptoms can help you to recognise that you or a loved one might need some extra support.


Symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia with up to a third of women and a fifth of men experiencing anxiety at some point in their lives [2]. While there are many types of anxiety disorders, the Black Dog Institute says that some common symptoms include:


Feeling Thinking Experiencing changes in
Very worried or afraid most of the time Everything’s going wrong Sleep problems (can’t get to sleep, wake often)
Tense and on edge I might die Pounding heart
Nervous or scared I can’t handle the way I feel Sweating
Panicky I can’t focus on anything but my worries Pins and needles
Irritable, agitated I don’t want to go out today Tummy aches, churning stomach
Worried you’re going crazy I can’t calm myself down Light-headedness, dizziness
Detached from your body   Twitches, trembling
Nauseous or like you might vomit   Problems concentrating
    Excessive thirst


Symptoms of depression

Depression affects 1 in 7 people in Australia [3]. While symptoms can range from relatively minor to very severe, the Black Dog Institute says signs of depression (that last for more than two weeks) can include:


Feeling Thinking Experiencing changes in
Sad, teary, anxious or irritable My problems are too difficult to solve Motivation
Hopeless and negative about yourself and others Life is too hard Ability to find enjoyment and pleasure in things
Alone and isolated Everything’s going to go wrong Quality of sleep (sleeping a lot, waking up a lot, or insomnia)
Exhausted I’m no good Appetite or weight
Guilty It’s my fault Interest in sex
Angry   Concentration and remembering things
    Drinking or drug use


Acknowledge your feelings

As well as recognising the signs, it’s important to acknowledge what you’re feeling. We’ve all heard the saying ‘fake it, ‘til you make it’ but Rebecca says that this definitely doesn’t apply to feelings of anxiety, sadness or depression.

“It’s important to acknowledge how you’re feeling and let the people around you know that you’re struggling with these feelings.

“When it comes to the holidays, let your family and friends know you’re feeling pressure about Christmas approaching and what you might need – a different way of catching up, spending time together one on one instead of a large group, or that you aren’t up for everything, but still want to be part of things,” says Rebecca.


Take control

Amongst the festivities it’s important to remember to focus on you and the things in your control. To help maintain a healthy balance for mind and body, Rebecca says it’s important to:

1. Keep your sleep routine in check. There’s a strong relationship between sleep and physical and mental health and while it’s easy to fall out of a good sleep routine, it can take up to two weeks to re-establish your sleep schedule. So even during the holidays it’s important to keep a reasonable pattern of bedtime and waking relative to your usual routine.

2. Avoid excess. Whether you’re spending time alone or with others, be mindful of trying to ease feelings of anxiety or sadness with things like alcohol, potentially addictive drugs or medication, emotional eating, or excessive spending, as this will often only make you feel worse in the long run. If you think this could be an issue for you, chat to friends, family or a health professional.

3. Watch out for ‘guilt gratitude’. This can come in the form of pressure to be ‘positive’ (‘I have so much to be grateful for’), ‘should-ing’ (‘I should be more joyful’) or downward comparison (‘there’s someone worse off than me’). We can put guilt gratitude on ourselves, or it can be imposed by someone else. Either way it can leave you feeling more anxious and depressed.

4. Keep moving. While the holidays are the perfect opportunity for some downtime, it’s important to stay active. Physical activity can help to boost energy levels, reduce levels of stress and anxiety and help to challenge overthinking and unhelpful thinking patterns. Gentle exercise can boost your endorphins and often helps to put things into perspective. It can also help you feel connected with others if you choose to.


Find space for joy

Christmas is often a busy time and Rebecca says that it can bring with it a mix of emotions.

“Rushing from A to B to keep up with a busy social calendar, feelings of overwhelm associated with all the extra decisions that need to be made about gifts or menus, the increased feelings of stress that come from extra spending, or feeling the pressure to create a positive Christmas experience for others can all take their toll.”

You might find it difficult to balance your ‘Christmas spirit’ with the heavy heartedness you feel about events going on in the world. You might be grieving a personal loss or experiencing feelings of loneliness as a result of any number of life events, including the death or loss of a loved one or pet, the end of a relationship, change in family dynamics, a change in your health or that of someone close to you, or the loss of a job.

“The arrival of Christmas doesn’t mean that all these feelings magically disappear, and there’s no right or wrong way to feel during the festive season,” says Rebecca.

So what can you do to support yourself or others? Rebecca says it’s important to:

1. Name your feelings. Identify what you’re feeling and experiencing. Remember that opposing emotions can co-exist and it’s possible to feel grief and gratitude, sadness and hope, loss and joy at the same time.

2. Be curious. If someone you love or know is struggling with these feelings, be curious and listen with interest. It will help them explore their experience more deeply, especially if you can show that you’re understanding and acknowledge how they’re feeling.

3. Suspend judgement. Towards yourself and others! Sometimes even with the best of intentions, jumping in with premature reassurance, advice or reframing things can leave people feeling worse and increase feelings of guilt and isolation.


Stay connected

While it might feel like an effort, Rebecca says it’s important to stay connected to friends, family or health professionals for support. It’s also important to be in touch with your own feelings.

1. Stay connected to yourself. Monitor your mood and anxiety levels and balance taking the time you need to stay tuned in with your emotional state, without isolating or withdrawing from others. Try to avoid over-committing and extending yourself.

2. Stay connected to others. Finding the right balance between ‘being social’ and how much activity leaves you feeling depleted is different for everyone. Consider what’s the right amount of ‘social’ for you. It’s important to remember that when we feel anxious, depressed or lonely, we tend not to do this.

3. Stay connected to a health professional. If you find this time of year particularly difficult, reach out to your GP or psychologist. Make an extra appointment in advance before Christmas and make sure you have a plan to connect again in the New Year.

Don’t be afraid to reach out!

Rebecca says it’s important to remember that you don’t have to be in crisis to talk to someone, especially to a helpline.

“Most people are surprised at how reaching out in the moment to talk about how they’re feeling can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and of overwhelm, sadness, or guilt.

“Talking to someone and sharing how you’re feeling can help to prevent these feelings from becoming even more overwhelming and can really put things into a different perspective,” says Rebecca.

Remember there’s no need to suffer in silence at this or any other time of year. There’s a whole lot of support out there, and no feeling or experience is too big or too small to talk to someone about. So don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need it:

Read more about how health insurance can lighten the load by helping to cover the costs of mental health treatment.