Preparing for Christmas

Retired Mental Health Nurse- Lynn Marshall

I am sure that this time last year none of us had any idea of what was to come in 2020 and that it would end up going down in history as most people’s “annus horribilis”.
Older people and those with underlying health conditions have lived in fear of contracting Corona Virus and have had to isolate and be separated from their loved ones. Sadly some people have been bereaved and not even had the chance to say goodbye. Some have lost their jobs , whilst others such as cares & nurses have been left exhausted and traumatized from what they have experienced. Children and young people have had their education disrupted, cancer treatment & operations have been delayed, etc, etc, etc. The focus in the media has mainly been on physical health but the impact on mental health of all this is enormous.
On a personal level I run my own therapy and training business and I also work for the NHS as a mental health nurse . I also regularly undertake assessments in care homes so I am probably more aware than most of the impact of all this on people’s mental health. In terms of the NHS, within the first week of lockdown, there was a huge increase in people going in to crisis – not only people with existing problems but also those who were normally resilient and had never ever suffered from anxiety or depression before.
Most of the emotions that were (and are still coming up) are I think, closely related to grief and loss and those include fear, denial, sadness, anger and frustration. I know that I personally have felt all of them and I think its important to recognize that this is perfectly natural and it doesn’t make us weak or a failure in any way. We all have good days and bad days and its hard to maintain positivity 24/7. I believe that now, more than ever we need to be as compassionate towards ourselves as we are towards those we love and not beat ourselves up because we have “down” days.
In the early weeks of the first lockdown we were absolutely bombarded with negative news so its hardly surprising there was a spike in fear levels. One of the key pieces of advice I gave to people back then (and it’s still relevant) is not to listen to too much news as it is mainly negative and it can have a really detrimental effect on your emotional health. Yes you want to know what’s going on but just tune in once or twice a day at the most and supplement it with watching something that makes you laugh or smile.
In terms of anger again, I think its not surprising that tempers get frayed and we can become grumpy and snappy. Much as I love my husband and daughter, I have to acknowledge that being effectively locked in with them for 3 months (despite me still going to do my nursing shifts and latterly, my daughter teaching) put a strain on our relationship. In the wider world with my many FB friends, it was difficult not to be sucked in to the arguments between people placed at both extreme ends of the pro lockdown V conspiracy theory camp. I was actually shocked how nasty this became at times. My advice here is again to limit the time spent on social media and maybe even consider having a holiday from it all together.
When it comes to any kind of loss (be it a person, a job, a club that’s had to close for good or something else) then I think you need to allow yourself to grieve and let out your emotions. If you have supportive friends and/or family around you then talk to them and in the case of the death of a loved one then “Cruse” are a fantastic voluntary sector organization offering one to one counselling and in some areas of the country, MIND also offer bereavement support. Its OK to be sad, angry, to cry and also to laugh, these are difficult days but I do believe there is hope out there and things will get better.
Moving on now to talk about the “C” word (as we call it in our family), yes Christmas!
Now maybe I’m a bit bias as I believe in keeping Christmas in December and by 1st January I have had enough (Bah humbug!) but I know I’m probably outnumbered. Don’t get me wrong, I have had some lovely experiences in the past, but for me I am always acutely aware that even in “normal” times it can be stressful. Culturally, there is this huge expectation that we all get together with our families and friends and we have to be happy and jolly – but what if you don’t have a family or you are not able to meet up?. What if you don’t get on with them? What if it’s the first Christmas without a loved one or you have just lost your job and you’re worried sick about the cost. It’s not easy but maybe the following tips might help:
1. In past years I have helped out at lunches for those living alone on Christmas Day and normally this would be my first suggestion, but due to the other “C” word those events won’t be running this year, however maybe you could have an “alternative” Christmas. Plan your day doing things you enjoy. If the weather is reasonable and you can get out, go to a favourite place in nature. Buy in some pre-prepared food – if you can afford it, splash out on an upmarket brand like M&S. If you live in an area of the country where a lot of people don’t celebrate Christmas then maybe you could order a takeaway.
Watch your favourite DVD or film or binge watch that series you have been missed (I can recommend the Queen’s Gambit if you haven’t already seen it). Buy an inspiring book, agree with a friend on a good time to phone them (they might well be grateful to escape from everyone else for a while).

2. If money is an issue, don’t put lots of pressure on yourself to compensate for the difficult year by buying your loved ones expensive Christmas presents you can’t afford. They will manage without them and you will just be creating a burden on yourself that can adversely effect your mental health as well as your pocket. I remember the years of buying my daughter the “perfect” gift only to find she got more pleasure out of playing with the box than the toy!

3. If you are usually responsible for all the domestic chores in the house including cooking, then Christmas can be particularly stressful. My advice here is be realistic regards what can be achieved e.g don’t put too much pressure on yourself for everything to be “perfect”. Its not the end of the world if you don’t serve up 6 different varieties of veggies or your bread sauce is shop bought and not home- made. You can survive without crackers and homemade Christmas pudding or cake. Ask for help (even children can do small tasks like tidy their rooms or lay the table). If you have a partner then allocate some tasks to them. When people look back at Christmas its going to be the people they spent it with that they remember, not whether the bread sauce was home made.
However you spend Christmas I hope it’s a good one

5 Tips
1. SAD lamps
If like me your mood dips in the winter due to the poor light levels then it may be worth investing in a SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) lamp. SAD is the term used when your mood dips in winter and can result in you feeling depressed and tired with problems sleeping. In effect you go in to hibernation. The disrupted serotonin and melatonin levels associated with SAD are both correlated to lack of sunlight, which is why it occurs in the winter. Daylight lamps aim to supplement this lack of sunlight, thereby stabilising your sleep patterns and raising your serotonin levels. You can easily pick one up cheaply on ebay.

2. Vitamins & Mental Health
Make sure you are taking a vitamin D supplement (we derive most of this from exposure to the sun which means that we can be deficient in winter). If you are feeling tired or low in mood, especially if you are a woman, also ask your GP to check your iron and vitamin B6 & B12 levels as deficiency in any of these can lower your mood and lead to you feeling depressed. In addition, if you are either tired and sleeping a lot or very agitated and can’t sleep, ask for a thyroid function test as this may be causing your symptoms.

3. Mental Health & Exercise
Attempt to get some physical exercise every day – preferably in the fresh air. Exercise has been proved to be beneficial to not only your physical health but your mental health as well. It doesn’t have to be a 20 mile run or climbing a mountain, even if it’s a gentle 20 minute stroll it will do you good. The other bonus of this right now, is that even in the second lockdown you can meet up with a friend outside.

4. Mindful Exercise
Practice some mindfulness. Contrary to popular belief you don’t have to sit still and meditate to do this – mindfulness is partly about slowing down, being in the here and now and moving your focus out of your head and on to your environment . One of my favourite mindful activities is washing up as you can engage all your senses : Squirt the washing up liquid in the bowl and notice the colour – maybe notice any scent too. Run the tap, listening to the water flow and seeing the bowl fill up and the bubbles emerge. Put your hand slowly in to the water and notice the temperature and the feel – look at your hands and notice if the colour has changed. Pick up a piece of crockery or cutlery and notice the shape, colour and texture. Is it warm to the touch or cold – really look at it in detail. Slowly put it in the water and watch what happens to the bubbles. Pick up the cloth or whatever you are using to wipe it with and notice that. What colour and texture is it. Carry on with the process of washing and preferably drying to and see how that feels.

5. Learn yoga
I will be 60 next year and I have recently started attending yoga classes. Its something I have tried before but given up on as I am so stiff and I found it hard to keep up with everyone else, but this time I have persevered and after 6 weeks of practice I am really feeling the benefits.

I think most people are aware of yoga helping with flexibility but it is also excellent for your mental health. This is partly due to the fact that it focuses a lot of improving they way we breathe and breathing is usually the first thing that is adversely effected when we become anxious and particularly if we have a panic attack.
When our “fight or flight” response is triggered by a perceived threat (real or otherwise) the reptilian part of our brain (left over from our caveman days) sends a message to the nervous system which then dumps loads of adrenaline in to our blood stream to help us fight the threat or run like heck.
As well as distracting us and taking our focus out of our minds and on to our bodies, it teaches us to slow down and reverse all the symptoms of a panic attack. Yes it does take practice, but if you invest the time and effort in to learning how to do it, I am sure you will find it beneficial.

Author: luke