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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 January 2019

Lonely this Christmas: tips for dealing with the festive strain on your mental health

It might be a time of celebration for many, but it can also be a time of huge pressure and stress

Christmas can be a lonely time of year. Getty
Christmas can be a lonely time of year. Getty

It might be the most wonderful time of the year for some, but for others, Christmas can take its toll on mental health.

From overflowing social diaries and spiralling expenses, to missing home and feelings of loneliness, the festive period can raise stress levels and heighten emotions for expats living in the UAE.

Research from a number of mental health charities has found that more than 50 per cent of people hide their feelings at Christmas to keep others happy, while 60 per cent of people have experienced panic attacks during the festive period.

Christmas shoppers in Dubai Mall (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National)
Christmas shoppers in The Dubai Mall. Antonie Robertson / The National

“While on the surface it may seem like an endless month of fun and frivolity, behind the scenes for some it can actually be an extremely challenging time of year, especially for those already struggling with mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression,” says Tanya Dharamshi, counselling psychologist and clinical director at The Priory Wellbeing Centre in Dubai.

“The reality is this time of year can be fraught with tension, particularly among family members, and an immense pressure and competitiveness to attend social gatherings and buy extravagant gifts — all of which can evoke feelings of insecurity and be extremely damaging to our mental health.”

Being away from family and friends heightens the pressure on mental health for expats, who make up 80 per cent of the population in the UAE. “Feelings of loneliness, distance and sadness are common among expats who spend the festive period here alone and could trigger a depressive episode,” Dharamshi adds. “Yet, even for those flying home, it’s often not all smooth-sailing. Many place unrealistically high expectations on themselves and loved ones, and often romanticise friendships and situations, only to feel hugely let down when the reality does not live up to their expectations.”

The warning signs

Mental health issues are common, and not exclusive to the festive period, but they may be heightened by it. Warning signs to look out for include agitation, irritation, low mood, reduced levels of enjoyment, feelings of despair and guilt, and changes in sleep and eating patterns.

Tips on how to look after your mental health over the festive period

1. Don’t dwell on past regrets

Looking back on what we have and haven’t achieved during the last 12 months can often lead to feelings of disappointment and regret, which can only heighten existing low-esteem and depression. Try shifting the focus to the present. While making plans and setting out your goals for the year ahead, celebrate your successes and accomplishments during the year, which will put you in a much more positive frame of mind.

2. Everything in moderation

Over-indulging with food can negatively affect our mood and cause anxiety. While it can be seen by some as a way of coping with difficult feelings, eating too much especially — unhealthy foods — can introduce feelings of guilt and low self-esteem. Try to do some exercise which involves getting outside and enjoying the weather — as this can help to improve your overall health and well-being.

3. Don’t be afraid to say no

The festive season, or “party season”, can involve more social engagements than usual. A recent survey by UK charity, Mind, found that one in four adults feel anxious about social gatherings during the festive season. The pressure to fit in can become intense and while it is important to get out and about and mix with other people, don’t beat yourself up if you turn down an invite or make an excuse to leave early. Listen to your body and take heed of when it’s had enough and needs to rest.

4. Share your problems

Talking with a friend or relative about the things that are worrying you can help you to realise that some of them aren't so important after all, and help you find a solution. Keeping worries and concerns ‘locked away’ will only make them worse in the long-run. Emotional support can release some of the burden and provide a different perspective.

5. Get enough sleep

While this is a very social time of the year, aim to get enough restful sleep. Don’t watch TV in bed as it’s generally stimulating for the brain. The same goes for streaming on a laptop or tablet. Charge your phone and devices outside your room, and don’t use the alarm on your phone as an excuse to keep your phone by your bed. Don’t use your smartphone in bed. Its noise and light can interfere with sleeping. LCD screens on phones and tablets emit light that is blue enriched. This light influences the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) and delays the release of the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin.

6. Listen to music

When it all gets too much, remove yourself from the room/situation and try listening to a playlist of, for example, light classical music that induces relaxation. The best suggestion is a 30-minute playlist.

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