Claire Moulds shares expert tips on how to manage the mental strain of the festive season
Being surrounded by lots of people for significant periods of time – all expecting you to be full of seasonal cheer – can be both exhausting and overwhelming. Whenever it starts to get too much, take yourself off for as long as you need – ten minutes, an hour or half a day – to quieten your mind and regroup.
Put the phone down
"While it’s tempting to burn the candle at both ends, not getting enough sleep leads to elevated levels of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol in the body, so be sure to also plan in some early nights or the odd lie-in," suggests Dr Michael McDonough, consultant psychiatrist and director of the Anxiety Disorders Programme at St Patrick's Mental Health Services in Dublin.
It’s easy to convince yourself when scrolling through social media that everyone else is having a 'picture perfect' Christmas. While you know there was probably a small child screaming just out of shot, or a culinary disaster unfolding in the background, that alone won’t stop you from falling down the comparison rabbit hole, so limit your use over the holidays.
"Our brain is probably the hungriest part of our body and it needs feeding properly, as there’s growing evidence that what we consume directly affects our mental wellbeing," says Martin Rogan, CEO of Mental Health Ireland. "We all indulge at Christmas, but too much caffeine, sugar or alcohol can leave us feeling even more anxious, so it’s important to try and maintain a healthy balance.
"Consider starting a course of fish oil (to help with the manufacture of neurotransmitters) and vitamin D (to boost mood and resilience) supplements four to six weeks before the big day."
Stella Vlachou, assistant professor in psychology and director of the Behavioural Neuroscience Laboratory/Psychopharmacology Unit at Dublin City University, adds: "There’s a lot of interesting ongoing research into how a diverse gut flora can help to alleviate the symptoms of conditions such as anxiety, so it’s important to eat a healthy and varied diet throughout the year."
Having everyone under one roof can be wonderful, but it can also be a pressure cooker. Escape into nature as much as possible – go for a walk, run or outdoor swim – to release tension and recharge.
If you’re feeling extremely anxious at any point, sit up straight in a chair with your feet on the floor and one hand on your belly button. Breathe in long and deep, and breathe out long and slow. Do this three times. This simple exercise will lower your blood pressure and slow your breathing and pulse so that you can, quite literally, catch your breath.
This article first appeared in the December issue of IMAGE Magazine.