How to improve your mental health in winter

Winter is a season that has many positive aspects, but for a lot of people it can be a difficult time. Gosia Bowling, Mental Health National Lead at Nuffield Health, has shared a guide on how to support and prepare yourself mentally for the time of year.

The pressure to have a perfect Christmas or holiday season surrounds us, whether through media – television, films, adverts, social – or the pressure we put on ourselves.

However, this year, as we strive to move forward from the impact of the pandemic, we are met with new personal and external impacts. The cost of living and energy crises, as well as global turbulence, all play a role in how this time of year will play out.

A ‘picture perfect’ Christmas is impossible for most of us to live up to at the best of times, never mind at the close of 2022, when many of us are coming to the end of yet another stressful and exhausting year. We end up putting pressure on ourselves to make Christmas as special as possible for those around us.

This guide is designed to help you refocus on what this season means to you; recognise where external (and internal) pressures are coming from; as well as provide methods and support strategies that can support or enhance your mental wellbeing.

Give yourself a gift

It can feel as if we've been ‘giving’ all year long, and now the season of giving is upon us, we need to do even more.

Christmas is traditionally a time in which we show kindness and goodwill to others, but during this season this often comes at the detriment of our own self kindness. We need to learn to balance the needs of others with the needs of ourselves.

This Christmas it’s more important than ever to be kind to ourselves and let go of unhelpful or unrealistic expectations. Thinking about what matters most this Christmas or holiday season can be much more helpful than trying to create a ‘perfect Christmas’.

Remember, this is very much in the eye of the beholder. It doesn’t need to be matching pyjamas in front of a fireplace with marshmallows on the go. The ‘perfect Christmas’ is one that aligns to your values.

When thinking about Christmas this year, both the season and the day, make sure you ask yourself “what does Christmas mean to me?”

You can either think through, or write down, your answers, but place the emphasise on your own values, rather than what you think others will want. For many, the list will include emotional outcomes, such as spending time with family and visiting friends, rather than material outcomes like buying presents and cooking Michelin-level meals – and this can help us to recognise when our values are shifting from where we want them to be.

Focus on your presence rather than presents

Despite the cost of living crisis, there is still a huge pressure and guilt to spend money on presents and decorations during this time of year to create the ‘perfect environment’. 

But often that comes at a cost – family and friends may laugh over a burnt turkey, but they will find it harder to forget barely seeing you throughout the day, or being on the receiving end of heightened emotions because you’ve spent all waking hours in the kitchen to live up to an unrealistic expectation you've set.

Your ‘presence’ – being present for yourself by taking the time to notice what you need and look after your health and happiness – is probably the best gift you could give yourself and your loved ones this year.

Depending on how you focus your thoughts, set time aside to focus on you. Avoid unnecessary stress over the festive season by planning as much as possible in the run up to Christmas, and be careful not to take on too much.

With everything that has impacted this year, there’s a tendency to want to compensate for celebrations being different. This is a normal feeling, but not something you need to do – it is a unique situation that we're all in together. You and your gifts are enough.

Personal circumstance will dictate what's achievable for this year, but there are ways to alleviate some of the pressures. Instead of buying gifts for everyone, why not try secret Santa, shop second hand only, or task everyone to make gifts this year?

You can also bring everyone into the fun of Christmas dinner by asking everyone attending to bring a dish, freeing up time to spend together.

Put the U into yuletide

Self-care at this time of year is just as important, if not more so than ever, as there are so many pressures that we’re facing. Make and take time for your own health and wellbeing, and understand your own limits.

We run the risk at this time of year of pouring from an empty cup, saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity and putting the aftermath of this behaviour onto our future selves. This often results in neglecting nutrition, movement, sleep and personal time, which is imperative for supporting positive mental health all year round.

Here are five tips to follow to check in with yourself

1. Limit the noise from your internal critical voice to challenge unhelpful thinking: You can use affirmations to counteract this noise, or self-awareness to recognise when you are being critical, and spend time thinking about how you can move past this. Practice talking to yourself with kindness and encouragement.

2. Remember feelings and moods are trying to tell you something: Sit with your feelings (even uncomfortable ones) for a moment and then check for unhelpful thoughts. Unrealistic ideals and rules such as ‘shoulds’, ‘musts’ and ‘ought tos’ are very common visitors during this season.

3. Set boundaries: It’s okay to say ‘no’ in order to prioritise yourself – this is your time and your life, so you’re in control of how it’s spent.

4. Give yourself permission to be you: View at least some of the holiday period as a chance for you to have restful moments – even if this is just a long bath, a private walk with the dogs, or time to read a new book.

5. Stick to routines that you enjoy: Too little or too much sleep can also leave you feeling low and anxious. Our sleep habits are intrinsically linked to our mood, so try to keep to regular sleep patterns as much as possible over the Christmas period. If exercise is something you love, going for a wintery walk or run can be the perfect way to get some fresh air, get some much-needed sunlight and exercise along with a change of place – there is a wealth of research that shows the positive impact physical activity has on mental health.

Understanding and recognising loneliness

All of the above can contribute to feeling under pressure, and this feeling can manifest in many ways, to the point that we start to isolate and remove ourselves from situations when things feel overwhelming.

Modern loneliness isn't just about being physically apart from others, it's an emotional state of feeling unconnected, or craving more meaningful or more frequent contact with others. This makes even more sense during this time of year, as the feeling is predominately shaped by our social environment and the nature of the bonds that we experience.

Any of us can experience loneliness at any point, and for each of us the experience is different. There are a number of ways to address loneliness, but the most important thing is to never suffer in silence.

Talk to a friend, family member or neighbour

Just five minutes of social interaction can help us to build on our social connections. When we experience social pain, the feeling is as real as physical pain. Despite this, we don't talk about loneliness, because telling someone can feel like admitting weakness or failure.

In the same way hunger is a signal to attend to our food needs, loneliness is a signal for us to attend to our social needs. Seeing loneliness in this way encourages a conversation without fear of judgement.

Address the root cause

Loneliness is often (though not always) a symptom of an underlying cause. You might have trouble trusting people, or you may feel isolated due to depression, for example. It's a good idea to think about what might be causing your loneliness, and try to address these issues head on. A therapist can help you to discover your root cause and make positive changes.

Learn to think differently

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help to rewire how you look and respond to situations, helping to build confidence and overcome some of the causes of loneliness, such as social anxiety or self esteem difficulties. This therapy is designed to give you the tools you need to make positive life-long change, so it could help you to manage your feelings of loneliness better in the long term.

If you're spending Christmas alone without choice, have a think about what you want to do beforehand. You may decide you just want to curl up with a movie or book and ignore the day completely. It's important to remember that not everybody has someone to celebrate with, and that some people may be experiencing feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Whether you're physically alone, or feeling as though you are, Mind have a supportive online community called Side-by-Side that you can join.

If you're experiencing loneliness, you can also contact Samaritans on 116 123 or if you need someone to talk to.

Last updated Wednesday 4 January 2023

First published on Thursday 22 December 2022