Join me during December as I count down ten tips for practicing self-care during the stressful festive season.

Supportive relationships are powerful in building resilience and helping us cope during difficult times. People without supportive social connections are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. This is particularly challenging for people who have already struggled with a mental health disorder, as this can result in disrupted social connections. Unless these connections are reformed or strengthened, risk of relapse remains high. Not only do social connections improve mental health, but also physical health and how long you live! The reverse is also true – relationships containing strain and conflict have a negative impact upon health.

The key word here is supportive. Although how many relationships you have is a factor, it is the quality of the relationships that is vital. Think about those relationships in which you can share concerns and receive support, and where you can offer support in return. Relationships that, for the most part, make you feel genuinely positive and encouraged.

If you have relationships like this, treasure them! They are particularly important during difficult times, so if you find Christmas stressful, make sure you make time for them. Schedule time to catch up, or to talk on the phone. Actually book it into your diary, make it a priority, and have a very high threshold for cancelling! When you do hang out, make sure you are investing in the quality of the relationship. Listen without judging. Be genuinely curious about their lives. Make them feel cared about, by showing you’re not distracted by things like mobile phones.

If you don’t have many, or any, strong relationships then perhaps this is something you could explore:

  • Get to know a neighbour
  • Contact a friend or acquaintance and invite them to catch up
  • Find out if there are any community, or hobby groups that might interest you, to help you establish relationships based on  a common interest
  • If you have children, strike up conversation with other parents when you take the kids to the park or pick them up from school
  • Get to know your colleagues better. If you don’t work, consider volunteering.

Although it’s easy to list these things out, it can be daunting to attempt forming new friendships. But if you can find the courage, you might be pleasantly surprised at the volume of isolated people in your community, equally desperate for a stronger social network.

If you struggle with a mental illness such as anxiety or depression, maintaining relationships can be particularly challenging. The first thing is to check in with your healthcare provider, usually a GP or psychologist, and ensure that you are adequately managing the illness. Optimised treatment of the illness is going to give you the best starting place for forming and maintaining friendships. Other things you may find helpful include:

  • Support groups – either in person or online. They’re not for everyone, but they can help to both form relationships, and to discuss these issues and share tips.
  • Look for events that involve an activity. If you attend a book club, a sporting group, or a craft gathering, then there is less pressure to actively socialise all of the time. Lulls in conversation are expected and are filled by participating in the activity, rather than awkward silences. It is also beneficial that everyone present has an interest in that activity, providing common ground and a starting point for connection and conversation.
  • Attend a group meet-up (preferably organised by someone else, enabling you to cancel attendance at the last minute if needed). Often people who struggle with mental illness hesitate to make plans for fear that their fluctuating symptoms will result in the need to cancel. They worry they will ‘let people down’. If this does happen, and you feel comfortable, try to be open about why you have had to cancel. Often people are very understanding when they have an explanation rather than a mystery, and it can be a good opportunity to spread awareness of how you and others are affected by mental illness in their day to day lives.
  • Sometimes there is a concern that you don’t have much to offer as a friend. Maybe you think you are uninteresting, not fun enough, or they just won’t like you. It can be helpful to approach it, instead, by thinking about how you can make the other person feel. Try to remember their name. Look for things you can genuinely compliment them about. Listen closely to what they are saying, not on what you are going to say next. Ask them lots of questions about themselves. When they answer, instead of moving onto the next topic, ask for more and more detail, really trying to get to know about their lives and thoughts.
  • Remember that it is normal to not become friends with everyone. Some people you will click with, and some you won’t. Give yourself the best chance of finding a great friend by being yourself, not what you think others expect you to be.

As always, make sure to talk to your doctor or therapist about an individualised approach, tailored to your specific history and circumstances.

As well as strengthening good relationships, Christmas can also involve navigating tricky relationships. This may be particularly the case if you have family staying with you, or are spending more time with them than usual. Make every effort to keep lines of communication open – unspoken issues can lead to tension and conflict. Tell them if you have particular wishes for how Christmas is celebrated. Explain any challenges you are experiencing with planning or preparing Christmas day, or perhaps with selecting gifts for family members you barely know. Take the opportunity to ask them if they are struggling with anything in return. Sometimes it  turns out that everyone is struggling with the same thing, but have been too proud to say anything. When trying to solve these challenges, avoid keeping things going for the sake of tradition; it might be time to stop exchanging grown-up presents, and just buy for the grandchildren, or do an easy bring-a-dish meal instead of a full traditional Christmas dinner. Find something that helps you all celebrate the parts of Christmas that are most important to you, while keeping stress to a minimum.

I hope these tips help you in navigating both the strong and challenging relationships in your life this festive season!

Over the next few days, I will be sharing more tips to reduce stress and improve wellbeing over the festive season. If you missed the last post about the importance of sleep, you can find it here. To make sure you don’t miss the rest, you can follow me on Facebook, sign up for my emails, join my Facebook group, or simply check back in on my website!

Tip 4: Messed up sleep

Tip 6: The power of gratitude

Published by Dr. Amy Imms

Disclaimer: All advice provided through this website and blog is intended as general advice, and not specific advice to any individual. Every individual is unique and has different needs, so please seek advice from your own health professional for advice tailored to your specific situation. I aim to provide high quality information based upon current research, guidelines and accepted practice. The possibility of error or omission remains, and I am not liable (including liability by reason of negligence) to the users for any loss, damage, cost or expense incurred or arising by reason of any person using or relying on the information and whether caused by reason of error, negligent act, omission or misrepresentation in the information presented or otherwise.

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