How to support a loved one over the festive period

    Published: 20 December 2021. Written in by Tom Ward.

    For many, this time of year is a time of goodwill, good food and good fun. However, there is also a large proportion of us who find this time of the year unbelievably overwhelming, mentally exhausting and a real struggle.

     ‘While many of us are looking forward to the holidays, many of us will associate this time of the year with a trigger for mental-health issues,’ explains Belinda Sidhu, Head of Mental Health and Wellbeing at Vitality.

     It’s unsurprising that we may have a friend or family member who doesn’t seem quite themselves at this time of the year. Mental health is a complex and difficult thing to understand and, as anyone who has suffered knows, feeling unwell doesn’t go away just because it’s supposed to be a happy time of year.

     ‘In the lead up to the festive period you might be thinking you should be feeling happy, you should be feeling joy, but for some reason you aren’t,’ Sidhu says. ‘That can add to our anxiety and stress. Especially after last year, there is a lot of pressure for this one to be great.’

     What’s more, our usual support systems can be limited during the festive period. ‘Certain support services tend to be closed down around Christmas,’ says Sidhu. ‘For example, therapists tend to be taking holidays around this time also. Or the pharmacy might be closed and you might not have access to medication.’

     With all of this in mind, Sidhu talked us through how we can spot behavioural changes in our friends and family, and what we can do to help.


    Spotting the signs

    They may come across as being less interested in day-to-day activities.

    They may seem to have a low mood or be quieter than usual.

    They may seem more angry or irritable than usual.

    They may seem to be feeling overwhelmed by things that wouldn’t normally cause them to react.

    You may notice a change in their behaviour: they may be drinking more, sleeping more or less, eating more or less, or have a lack of appetite entirely.

    They may be more reclusive – saying no to social invites, which may be out of character and not in relation to Covid-19 guidelines.


    How you can help

    Sidhu advocates taking care of your own mental health as a priority. ‘First of all, I’m a firm believer in putting your own oxygen mask on before helping others – are you in the right place to offer help? Look after yourself and your own wellbeing,’ she advises. 

    ‘If you’re feeling anxious ask yourself: what are the practical things you can do about it? It’s about planning ahead. If you’re nervous about certain conversations, try to set some boundaries. You can do this via a little bit of role-play with yourself, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes so you can pre-empt their response.’

    Next you should reassure them that you’re there to help. ‘Reach out – tell them they’re not alone. They may not know it’s common to feel this way at this time of year,’ she continues.

     Listen to them. ‘Really listen to understand –don’t just listen to reply – and accept they feel the way they feel without judgement,’ she says. ‘If they don’t want to talk to you about it, then you’re letting them know that you’re there.’

     Ask whether there’s something they think could help – you may be able to help them with any practical elements of the problem.

    And if they’re not receptive to help? ‘Don’t take it personally if they don’t respond – just knowing you’re there can be enough,’ says Sidhu. ‘And remember, if they’re trying to hide it, then you might not see it and that isn’t your fault.

    ‘What you can do is ask: “How are you? I haven’t heard from you in a while. How are you really?”’ she explains. ‘Push a bit and if they don’t want to talk to you about it, then you’re letting them know you’re there.’

    Know your limits. Ask for help or signpost if the problem is serious. And if you believe they may be in immediate danger to themselves or others, contact the emergency services.

     Encourage them to call or email Samaritans if they’re really struggling. ​​’There are lots of online resources to help yourself and others,’ she explains. The NHS has a list of mental health charities that can offer help and Vitality members have access to several avenues of support.

    Use the Headspace app if you need some quiet and focus yourself – it can help you to be better prepared to respond to stressful thoughts and situations.

     The festive period can be hard for all of us. And that’s OK. But we all deserve the best chance of enjoying it as much as possible. 

    ‘The main thing is to be gentle with yourself,’ says Sidhu. ‘Have self-compassion. Set boundaries. Let yourself and those around you experience the feelings you and they are feeling. Remember that it’s OK to feel this way and that all feelings pass. No one has to be happy just because it’s the festive period, this time of year will feel different for everyone​​’. Above all the best thing you can do is be kind, show care and compassion, and share love – and this includes yourself.

    As a Vitality health insurance member, you have a range of mental health support available to you, from a Headspace subscription to mental health forums and talking therapy. Log in to the Member Zone for the details.