Mental health: Five ways that Christmas traditions can lift your spirits

Posted on Dec 19 2017 - 4:41pm by admin

Christmas can be a mental health boonGETTY / STOCK

Christmas and its traditions can be a mental health boon

The festive period has a pretty bad reputation within the mental health community – and with good reason.

If you have social anxiety, the expectation you will attend parties is panic inducing.

If you have an eating disorder the requirement to consume mountains of food in front of others can be overwhelming.

The way the season upsets our routines, nutrition and alcohol consumption can mean we are more prone to low moods. 

Many people have fraught or difficult relationships with their families – unresolved conflicts or buried traumas which are magnified by being forced to spend time in close proximity to them.

As a mental health campaigner I’m aware of the need for extra support at this time of year (and it is encouraging to see charities such as MIND, Beat and CALM offering advice on social media).

But I want to mount a defence of Christmas.

Bearing in mind that we all need to take care of our mental health, there is a lot about the traditions at this time of year which can and does nourish the mind. 

Feeling like you belong at Christmas helps stressGETTY / STOCK

Feeling like you belong at Christmas helps stress levels reduce

Bearing in mind that we all need to take care of our mental health, there is a lot about the traditions at this time of year which can and does nourish the mind.

Natasha Devon

Christmas as we practise it today began as a primitive solution to seasonal affective disorder.

A commonly accepted theory is that early Christians merged rituals to commemorate the birth and death of Jesus with pagan festivals to ease the religious transition.

Pagans deemed it necessary to break up the long, dark winter months with light, warmth and hope and so had a “festival of light” mid-winter.

It was a way to combat low moods and generate happiness when most many of them felt the psychological effects of the season.

In some ways it still is. How many times have you heard someone say “I’m OK with winter until the bit after Christmas. That’s when I really start to struggle”?

If we take away all the excess consumerism associated with Christmas and boil it down to some of its more substantive components, there are a number of important ingredients that contribute to our wellbeing and happiness:

1. Feeling connected

According to psychologist Martin Seager, who has 30 years’ experience in the profession, a key human psychological need is a sense of belonging.

Disconnection and isolation are the enemies of happiness.

At Christmas people on the street tend to smile more and make eye contact with one another in a way which is rare in the age of the smartphone.

Saying “merry Christmas” provides an important social lubricant to break through our typical British reserve.

There is a sense of everyone experiencing the same thing at the same time which in turn makes us feel more connected to one another.

2. Giving to charity

In 2011 the American film director Roko Belic travelled to more than a dozen countries to observe different communities and discover what really makes human beings happy.

The resulting documentary Happy concluded that one of the four essential factors in attaining fulfilment is to help others. 

At Christmas we are encouraged to be generous.

On average, charitable donations increase by about five per cent in December.

But the highest donations are made in November, when the Christmas season kicks off.

People living on the streets report a rise in the amount of money and acts of kindness they receive.

The time and energy we expend in being kind pays multiple dividends, in terms of our own wellbeing. 

Giving to charity and being kind is good for usGETTY / STOCK

Giving to charity and being kind is good for us, too

3. Traditional singalongs

Singing is recommended by many therapists as a way to achieve a state of mindfulness (being “in the moment”) as well as to express and exorcise difficult emotions.

Not only that but a traditional Christmas singalong actually affects your brain chemistry.

Studies by neuroscientists have shown that when we sing, it fires up the right temporal lobe of our brain, releasing endorphins.

This phenomenon is particularly pronounced when we sing in groups, which makes carolling the ideal activity for a mental health boost. 

4. Having a holiday

Recreation is essential for happiness.

In fact, in 2008 philosopher Aaron Ben-Ze’ev wrote an article for Psychology Today in which he detailed how the importance of “intrinsically valuable activities” has been noted since Aristotle’s time.

Doing things for their own sake as opposed to financial reward such as going for a walk in the park, cooking a gigantic turkey dinner from scratch or playing Monopoly with family are proven to make us happier.

Maintaining a work-life balance is increasingly difficult, given the reported strain on the world economy and therefore both families and individuals. 

Studies have suggested that Britain has the longest working hours in Europe, with 13 per cent of the population working for 49 hours or more per week.

Taking time out for yourself at Christmas is keyGETTY / STOCK

Taking time out for yourself and having a holiday at Christmas is key to mindfulness

Many people don’t get time off at Christmas and long gone are the days when everything shut down for a week.

But for those fortunate enough to get a holiday, Christmas represents an opportunity to redress some of the time lost to overworking throughout the rest of the year.

5. Family time

Not everyone has a good relationship with their families and even for those of us who do, the rows we have only happen because we are with a group of people who know us so well they can wind us up in three seconds flat. 

Again, this feeds into our need to have a sense of belonging.

Spending time with family can be a balmGETTY / STOCK

Spending time with family can be a mental health balm

Not only this but a review of 48 studies involving more than 300,000 people, discovered that those with the strongest social relationships are 50 per cent more likely to live longer.

If you’ve ever had a conversation where you complain about a parent or sibling to a friend but then feel inexplicably incandescent with indignation when they join in, you know how it feels to have a tribe.

They are your people, even when they drive you mad.

So this Christmas let’s take the festival back to its roots and take advantage of the opportunities it can present for our wellbeing.

Natasha Devon MBE is a writer and campaigner who tours schools and colleges throughout the UK. Her book A Beginner’s Guide To Being Mental will be published in May by Bluebird

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