It’s that time of year again…

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I wrote a post last Christmas about the pressures and stresses of what is supposed to be a happy time of year on those with mental health difficulties. I wanted to write another to reiterate that if you are struggling, you are not alone, and you certainly shouldn’t feel bad about it!

It’s such a beautiful, magical time of year. Many of us probably have fond memories of incredible Christmases as children, when we could appreciate the full effect of it all.

However as adults, contrary to the trials and tribulations of daily life being put on hold for a few days, those problems continue or are often exacerbated as the festive period nears. Whilst most people love Christmas, a fair few will admit that they struggle with it more than they let on. In general for the whole population, there are increased financial pressures with copious amounts of food and gifts to buy and parties to attend, plus the worry of the Christmas diet deterioration. In addition perhaps you have had a difficult year, a bereavement, a break-up, job loss or financial worries and the coming celebrations only serve to remind you of happier times or of what you have lost rather than what you have.

For those with anxiety, depression or an eating disorder however, Christmas poses a number of difficulties and can be an incredibly stressful time. An onslaught of social situations and works dos with an accompanying barrage of small talk, alcohol and food coupled with the pressure of appearing to be happy and to enjoy yourself when that is the last thing you feel like doing is often hard to deal with. Feeling alone when you’re surrounded by people is often one of the worst forms of loneliness.

Here’s a few of my own tips for getting through the Christmas period if you are struggling:

  • Try to make time for yourself. Take time to read a book, browse Pinterest, light some candles, watch some telly or have a long shower or hot bath.
  • Go for a walk. Take some time out in nature. Spend time with animals or pets.
  • Avoid getting blind drunk. It only serves to make you feel worse afterwards.
  • Keep your routine. Routine is important for good mental health and recovery. It can sometimes be disrupted around Christmas with parties and impromptu shopping trips. If you have an eating disorder, explain to your family that it would be helpful if your general and meal routines were kept as similar as possible and make sure that they are aware that eating out unexpectedly may still be difficult and stressful for you.
  • Push yourself. Not too much, of course; but just out of your comfort zone. This is how you grow and recover and develop – chances are if you go to that gathering you’ve been invited to, you’ll have a lovely time and won’t have to feel guilty for turning the invitation down, as well as missing out. You’ll form new or closer relationships with others which helps with social anxiety. Don’t be scared of using this time as an opportunity to do ‘scary’ things and push your boundaries.
  • Give to others. It’s the time of giving! Whilst it shouldn’t be your motivation for doing so, giving to someone else will help you feel better about yourself. If you find yourself with spare time, why don’t you take some food to the homeless shelter or help at the local old folk’s Christmas party? Buy a stranger a coffee, or offer to help a friend. You’re helping others but you are also inadvertently helping yourself.
  • Don’t feel bad for feeling bad. You can’t help how you feel. If you’re making positive changes then you are making an effort and trying your best – don’t be hard on yourself if you are finding it difficult to enjoy yourself and don’t let others make you feel bad either (it’s easier said than done, I know).
  • Try to live in and appreciate the now, the small things. A hot chocolate in Starbucks, a few flurries of snow, seeing a relative you haven’t seen in years. The little things are the best things. You only get so many Christmases; and even if it’s not a time you enjoy, it’s minutes, hours and days of your life. Try and enjoy this time in any way you know how. You might just surprise yourself J

PS…

It’s important not to forget that whilst we should never trivialise or compare problems of our own to others as it is always relative, some people are completely alone at Christmas. Many elderly people, as well as those who are depressed or live alone can feel very down and very isolated over the festive period. If you are able to, please try to reach out to someone you know who may be struggling at this time, and please don’t berate them for not being full of festive cheer.

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Finally – the government begins to look at failings in mental health services for young people…

…and it is being discussed in wider society and media!

If you are interested in the poor provision for mental health in this country, especially in younger people, you might have seen Newsnight on 5th November.

In this episode, Professor Tanya Byron and MP Charles Walker discussed new figures which show just how poor the mental health is of our younger people today, and how there simply is not enough provision for those who need help. Obviously, this means that we have a lot of people like myself entering adulthood with impacted issues which have not been properly addressed or treated. The programme spoke to several young people who felt failed by the system, as well as key figures heading up charities who aim to help youngsters who say that the problem really is getting out of control the longer this lack of provision is allowed to continue.

I’m so inspired by Charles Walker, who suffers from OCD himself, who has campaigned tirelessly for years to improve the state of mental health services in the UK. He’s struggled to be heard by MPs; of course the stigma against mental illness as opposed to physical illness is still very much a real and present hurdle for campaigners to cross.

It was also revealed that for every £1 spent in the crucial early stages of mental illness, £84 would be saved later on in life. But of course this is not about money – this is about lives.

I’m really pleased that this episode brought a spotlight upon what has previously been a hushed issue. I wrote a long letter to my MP about failings in the NHS’ Mental Health services not only for younger people such as myself but in general, yet I was sent a frankly ignorant and whimsical response which skirted round the issue rather than address it, completely dismissing the individual examples I had disclosed and refusing to take action. Finally it is being recognised that what is happening is nothing short of a crisis. Having experienced the short-fallings from a personal perspective, both with myself and with friends and relatives, I can really see how these figures add up.

What makes me so sad is the huge number of individual failings that result in deaths of young people (and older people, who were failed in their earlier years). That is the heart of this issue – many die needlessly because they did not have the access to the help they needed. Perhaps the saddest thing about this is that they die feeling as though nobody cared, and that they perhaps weren’t worth having time spent on them to help them to feel better.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have the support of my family and friends over the years – others aren’t so lucky. That’s why we really do need a service which will support and help individuals recover before their problems are impacted and worsened over time.

Have you had a bad (or good) experience on the NHS regarding a mental health issue? Please share it.

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Christmas Anxiety

And by this, I don’t mean worrying that you won’t get what you asked for on Christmas Day!

For lots of people with GAD, Depression and EDs, (me included!) Christmas can be an incredibly stressful time. Most ‘normal’ people (as they would call themselves!!) don’t understand this anxiety or bad feeling surrounding Christmas because after all, it’s the time of year that most people enjoy and look forward to the most. Time off to spend with family, lots of yummy indulgent food, gifts; what’s not to love? Plenty, it seems, for those who are suffering from a variety of mental health issues. Below I’ve compiled a few reasons I believe Christmas is so difficult for some. In fact I genuinely believe that through a facade of mirth and excitement that a lot of people dread Christmas, for various personal reasons. Let me know if you agree/disagree, or have any of your own to add….

1. Winter Weather. This is  a HUGE one for me. My family always say that I ‘wasn’t built for the cold’ and I have to say, they’re completely right. I’m constantly cold, my skin is dry and often blue. The nights draw in to the mid-afternoon and quite frankly all I want to do at 4pm when the lights go out is go to bed. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is very common in the UK and those who have other mental health issues are predisposed to suffering from it.

2. Food. This one really only applies specifically to those who have suffered from or are in the midst of an ED. That said, with most women and men under constant pressure to look perfect, and many dieting constantly, it’s going to apply to a lot more of the population this year. Christmas in this instance is hell. Food absolutely everywhere; on television, on the radio, and most worryingly, in the house; in abundance. To make matters worse, this isn’t just any food – it’s the most indulgent, fattening, scariest kind. An onslaught of invitations for parties and dinners arrive, filled with the prospect of copious amounts of sugary booze and frightening festive party food. I’m a guilty party here and I’ve been known to turn down party invitations simply because of the sheer anxiety I suffer knowing that the lure of a smoked salmon blini is stronger than my willpower. However I need to put this in perspective here, not only for myself but for everybody reading this who is similar to me. You really do only get one life, and so many Christmases. A few indulgent evenings won’t make you fat or unhappy. We know this, and are incapable of believing it, but please, try not to let food control your Christmas, as it controls the rest of your life. There will be more posts on this over the next couple of weeks, so keep your eyes peeled.

3. People. Staying with parties, what happens if you have an anxiety about going out and being around people? Acutely low self-esteem can leave you feeling so bad about yourself that you just can’t face presenting an ‘inadequate’ you to a room full of ‘perfect’ people. Sound familiar? Of course, we’re all expected to be sociable at Christmas and attend parties and events which usually involve dressing up and looking fabulous. But if you don’t feel fabulous, then these functions only serve to hammer your self esteem into the ground and normally end in drunken tears. Rejecting these invitations, I feel, isn’t the key to overcoming this. For me, the only things I have found to have helped is a) not giving myself too much to do/too many things to go to, and b) manning up and forcing myself to go to at least one thing a week. It’s really, really hard. But however overwhelming it is, however many panic attacks precede walking into that venue, it is ALWAYS worth it. I promise. If nothing else, just for the sheer pride in knowing that you took that huge step, stuck two fingers up to your anxieties and walked through that door with your head held high. Trust me.

4. Expectations of ‘Fun’. Lots of people say that ‘forced fun’ is the worst fun. And it’s true. When you’re expected to be happy and excited and having lots of fun (because it’s Christmas, why shouldn’t you be?), it’s so much worse because you really are not happy, excited, or having any fun at all. Those who are judgmental about those with mental health issues come out in force over the festive period, contributing their nuggets of unhelpful ‘wisdom’ from ‘Well it’s Christmas, what have you got to be unhappy about?’, to ‘You’re very lucky, some people have no Christmas and no food on their plate’. It’s excruciatingly frustrating to hear these things and unfortunately, nothing you say will pacify these people. The root of anxiety is trying to please others and worrying about what others think. In this case there really is no point. Christmas is your time of year, as well as anyone else’s, and you are free to enjoy it, or perhaps ‘not enjoy it’, however you choose.

5. Money. Lots of people feel anxious about money around Christmas. After all, it’s an expensive time. In an increasingly material world, presents a re equated to status, and how much you love someone else. When of course that’s ridiculous. Easily said, not easily felt when children are now demanding iPads and PS4s in their stockings. The Money Advice Service, or MA, is a government-run service which provides help for those struggling to make ends meet over Christmas. Money Saving Expert is another good one if you are looking for tips and tricks to make your money go further this year. Remember – it really doesn’t matter how much you spend.

6. Social Media. The root of much evil in society today, in my opinion. Over Christmas, the ‘life competition’ is extended. Cue Instagrams of people with their beautiful trees, their gorgeous children, their hot boyfriend, in the thick white snow. Enjoying mulled wine with friends, opening expensive presents, eating lots of fatty food and still pouting in an XS reindeer onesie. It’s all SUPERFICIAL and it’s the fuel for anxiety and a feeling of inadequacy and ugliness. Don’t forget that whilst these folks say they are enjoying themselves ‘so much’, if they were really having a good time they wouldn’t be spending time away from their families to choose what filter makes them look hot. This culture of vanity is difficult to get away from and easy to get sucked into because after all, you don’t want to be the one with no gorgeous pictures to display and we are conditioned to compete with our peers. My advice? Stop going on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. I have. If it’s killing you, stop looking, however tempted you are. It won’t go away, so you have to be strong and make it. Delete those apps!!

My advice after all this? Remember the fundamentals. Respect and enjoy the simple things. Do you have some food? Are you warm? Have you got some time off work to spend on yourself and your family, friends or people you care about? That’s all you need. Even if it’s cold, if the sun is shining go for a walk. Clear your head and you’ll find beauty in the small things.

Before I end this post, let me say that I am NOT Scrooge. I do enjoy the feel and festivities surrounding Christmas, and I DO make a conscious effort to enjoy it. However I wrote this post because more people than I anticipated have shared their anxieties with me in the run up to the holidays, and I would like to ensure that nobody feels alone in their thoughts this season.

Let me know what you think!

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