Monday, 21 December 2015

Top Five Tips for a Mentally Healthy Christmas

I have chippered up significantly since my last post! Things are starting to feel a little more festive at Hyggelig Towers, I have done some nice things with some lovely people, I baked hundreds of Swedish cakes, oh, and MY HEATING WORKS AGAIN! Hallelujah. A lovely long celebratory bath was had.

So I promised some kind of 'optimistic part two' to my last post, and here it is! My top tips for maintaining positive mental health over the festive period, in list form, because apparently that is A Thing now, but also I just like a list.

1. Good Food for Good Mood.

I don't know if it's the terrifyingly mild weather (does anyone else find it genuinely scary? I feel like I'm in Neighbours, Christmas down the beach etc etc), but this year I have not been feeling my usual need for hearty, stodgy Winter fare, and I am not overly enthusiastic about the prospect of rich, festive foods, I don't want to feel lethargic or weighed down, anymore than I do already. Instead I have been craving light meals with as much fresh colour in them as possible. I have been using this book a lot -

It's really how I want to eat at the moment, simple meals with tons of vegetables, bright colourful fruits and berries, and some nice oily fish. I used to be vegetarian, but I do now (guiltily) eat some fish. It may well be psychological but I think fish is great for mental health - whenever I eat fish I imagine all the lovely omega oils lubricating my brain and keeping it all in good condition. Mind has a useful page on food and mood here. I have also been meal planning as far in advance as possible to take the drudgery out of needing to eat so often. For me one of my major mental health 'warning signs' is when I stop feeling interested in food, I love cooking and eating but when I'm in a slump I forget what I like to eat, and the thought of thinking of a meal and preparing it feels like a massive chore. Meal planning and stocking up on lots of fresh ingredients really helps. I learned once that even the tiniest of barriers will stop you from doing something - having ideas and ingredients on hand removes some of these, and avoids that sofa-paralysis of thinking "I know I need to eat but first I have to think of what to eat and the fridge is empty so I definitely have to leave the house..." and then getting too hungry to do either of those and just eating toast. I am not dissing toast. But living on it does not make me feel very good about myself.

2. Get out of breath - and do it outside (ooh er!)

I think I said in my last post about useful things I've read to do with depression avoiding the usual cliches, well, I'm going to go totally cliche here and say that if your health/circumstances allow, exercise is SO important. In the past I've groaned inwardly whenever an article or doctor have reminded me of this, thinking 'but I can't get out of bed, as if I can go for a run'... but a few things over the last year have helped me make the change and it has now become part of my routine. I think I'll do a follow up post on this to avoid a list-within-a-list, so I'll just say here that there are two things for me that make physical activity a 'mental health' activity - I find I get most from it when I have got out of breath (gets the endorphins going), and that doing it outside adds a whole ton of 'bonus' benefits - I now go for a run around my local area as often as I can and as well as the benefits of the run itself, being outside and noticing the tiny seasonal changes keeps me grounded, and I also feel a lot more engaged with my local community - I see the bits that my usual daily routines wouldn't take me through, and regular faces in the park, and it gets me out of the house. These things feel essential living alone, and I always feel so much better for it. Cliche again but it turns out it is true that exercise GIVES you energy - left to my own devices I can be a very lethargic person, but I find a run first thing gives me energy and motivation for the rest of the day. Last year I went for a run on Christmas morning and it was fab - saying hello and happy Christmas to all the people in the park put me in an amazing mood, then coming back to stuff my face feeling like I'd earned it.

My running route (albeit in Summer)

3. Make your own traditions!

The top two items of this last apply at all times of year, but here's one for Christmas/Holidays/Birthdays. If the festive season and all the accompanying expectations of what you SHOULD be doing/enjoying get you down, just MAKE IT UP YOURSELF. Find out what works for you, and do it in any goddamn way you like. You don't have to answer to anyone. For my ex, this has always meant spending Christmas by himself. He sleeps in, he eats beans on toast, he watches EastEnders. And whenever he tells people this, they feel sorry for him, but they really shouldn't, because that is how he likes it. More power to him! For me it is smaller things than that, I actively despise Christmas shopping and have had many a town-induced existential crisis during December, so a change I have made is to switch to only buying presents for my niece, nephews and best friend, and making things for the rest of my family. And when I say making things, in the past I have set myself way too high goals involving embroidered teatowels and hand crafted decorations, now each couple gets some homemade pfeffernusse in a nice tin and and a bottle of wine, and they seem happy. But inventing traditions can also be about doing nice things for yourself, even if you do live on your own - perhaps especially if you live on your own. You're worth it too, singletons! Choose a nice thing to have for breakfast on Christmas morning and do it every year. If you spend Christmas with your family, bring a little bit of 'you' to the festivities - being obsessed with all things Scandinavian I choose a traditional Scandinavian Christmas recipe to make and take to my brother's for Christmas Day, and this year I had my family over here for a Christmas Fika which I might make a new tradition. Somehow it just gives me a little element of control over an event which is so dictated by societal expectations, and making something a tradition helps me get into the right mood.

Christmas Fika


4. Time alone and time together

This is getting a bit long now so I'll wrap it up (no festive pun intended!). I'm a classic introvert, I love people but they really exhaust me, recovery time is essential. But like anything, it's about balance. I feel like everything with mental wellbeing comes back to balance, and it's one of those things that's very easy to say but really quite challenging to achieve. I get it wrong all the time, but it's a learning curve. I cannot be around people all waking hours of the day, I really can't - it's almost physical. But my love of alone time can easily drift into too long spent alone, becoming withdrawn, and that's not good either. So I have tried to plan for this in advance - I will spend Christmas Eve to Boxing Day at my bro's, but I will definitely be taking plenty of opportunities to have a little 'by myself' time - my aforementioned Christmas run, a long bath and a podcast, all these things keep me sane and help me enjoy my family time rather than feeling like an overheated computer. But equally I am planning 'together time' into the rest of the festive week when I will be back home but a lot of my friends are away, even if it's just EastEnders with my ex (hey who am I kidding, this is one of my highlights of the year...). Probably this point sounds like stating the bloody obvious, but with depression I find knowing what you should do is not even the half of it, it requires extra conscious effort and planning that maybe for other 'non-sufferers' aren't so important. For me there's always a window of opportunity where I'm are aware I'm a bit at risk and need to change something up, it's about identifying that moment before it goes too far and the paralysis sets in.

5. Podcasts

I said I was going to wrap it up but writing the last point made me think of this! Podcasts are maybe my favourite discovery of 2015, and such a boon for the lone household!  An informative podcast and doing something crafty with my hands = pure bliss. Also an insomniac's best friend. I'm really into pyschology podcasts at the moment as I'm formulating ideas for my dissertation. Top recommendations are - All In The Mind, Digital Human, Invisibilia, BPS Research Digest and The Hidden Brain. And Serial is back! Recommendations (psychology or otherwise!) greatfully received.

Well that's it for now, I don't know if any of that is actually helpful to anyone other than me but I enjoyed writing it. Now just to stick to my own plans! 

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