The end of Michaelmas term has come and gone, marking the completion of another ten weeks of condensed learning at Durham. I’m sure we’ve all earned a long break, but amidst the carol singing, Christmas decorations and mulled wine, Christmas isn’t always a relaxed holiday. On the contrary, the winter holidays signal a rather abrupt stop to university life and a radical shift in routine, potentially impacting negatively upon your mental health.
Christmas is a time when expectations surrounding spending time with family can collide painfully with strained familial relations, or when the absence or bereavement of a loved one can become especially apparent. It’s also when alcohol and food are traditionally abundant, and for those who struggle with either, the holiday season can become a very challenging time.
With the stress of travelling, hosting, or being around that one family member who points out your biggest insecurity in front of everyone, Christmas can make you feel like you are spiraling out of control — a feeling which can exacerbate existing mental health issues, or significantly affect your mental wellbeing. The trick is to challenge your assumptions: even if you feel like you have to do that great big list of things, the world will keep on turning if you don’t get them all done. Life goes on. Question why you have those traditions, and tweak them if the specific way they’re done stresses you out unnecessarily. Don’t back yourself into a corner; you always have a choice, you always have a way out.
Looking after yourself
A little self-care never goes amiss, and Christmas is no different. Amidst frantic last-minute Christmas shopping and keeping your extended family entertained, remember to take a step back and just b r e a t h e. Family gatherings are great, but especially after extended periods of socializing. Personally, my inner introvert kicks in, and a quick walk or a trip to the bathroom creates a little personal space and gives me a chance to reset. It’s more than okay to slow things down as you need to, and to take time every day for yourself.
If you find yourself feeling antsy, check if you’re getting a similar level of exercise as you normally do. I could go on about endorphins, and the feel-good factor that exercise has a hand in, but take this as a reminder that getting your heart rate up can help you blow off steam. If you’re feeling adventurous, you could even challenge yourself and pick up a new sport.
It goes without saying, but getting adequate amounts of sleep is crucial to mental health. It might be tempting to stay up and party hard, but keep an eye on your wellbeing and look after yourself. For the insomniacs amongst you, ‘Liberation in Mind’ is a website that does a multitude of hypnotherapy tracks that are free to listen to, and are targeted at anxiety and insomnia.
If you’re taking medication, you might also find it helpful to set a reminder on your phone for when to get a refill. This is particularly pertinent around Christmas bank holidays and earlier closing times, or if you’re travelling abroad.
Sometimes you’ll find you’ve got too much time on your hands. Durham empties out after term ends, and for anyone staying at their term-time residence, you might find all your friends are on the other side of the country (or the world!). Social isolation is definitely a downer on your mental wellbeing, and even if you are staying in Durham to work, it’s just as important to block out an hour or so every day to go and seek out your daily dose of social activity.
Waddington Street Centre is a local mental health community centre based in the Viaduct (2 minutes away from Domino’s) that does regular events every week, such as poetry, art and sports. They’ve also got open access groups, including a Young Person’s Support Cafe every Tuesday, a women’s group every Monday, a men’s group every Wednesday, drop-ins (an informal chat and a cuppa) on Thursdays and Saturdays, and an Open Art Studio. It’s a great way to stay busy and see a couple regular faces if you are in Durham over Christmas.
http://Open access groups: www.waddingtoncentre.co.uk/open-access-groups
Christmas is a time traditionally associated with giving thanks, so you might also consider giving back to the community through volunteering your time. Become more involved in your local community. Charity shops such as Mind, Oxfam, or British Heart Foundation all welcome volunteers. You could also look into food wastage management systems, community meals, or soup kitchens. Or, on a more personal level, you could surprise someone close to you by doing something for them.
Alcohol and food
Christmas is traditionally associated with indulgences in both alcohol and food. Yet, for those who struggle with either, having a plan is crucial to making the holiday season easier to cope with. Peer support groups, either locally or online, can be a good place to get support. Commitments ahead of time about your actions and emotions day by day to yourself, or to a trusted friend who can help hold you accountable, can make events more manageable. For example, it might be worth discussing with your family whether certain foods can be available at a meal, or whether you’d like to be able to serve yourself. Similarly, you can decide to drink only a certain amount, or not at all, making a plan at the beginning of each day. Having a friend on hand to text if you get anxious can also be helpful. It can also be a time to set small challenges or goals, but be aware of what you can manage. It is okay to take things in steps, and above all, be kind to yourself.
Bereavement and difficult memories
If you associate Christmas with a difficult time, it may sometimes be possible to create new rituals with people you trust. This could be as simple as an hour spent sharing memories of someone you’ve lost, or to watch a particular show with specific friends. It might still be a difficult time, but by creating a shared activity, you build neural pathways that will strengthen over time, associating a difficult memory with more positive experiences.
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