In this opinion editorial, psychologist and Panda co-founder Allan Sweiden shares six mental health hacks to help support you over the festive season. Christmas carols are playing on the radio, tinsel is winking at us from the shops, and most of us are feeling – well, a little flat.
The festive season can be challenging at the best of times, given the flurry of last-minute activities and the pressure to have a wonderful time. This is often exacerbated by feelings of loneliness, and a natural reaction to the loss many have experienced at a time when we are urged to value those around us. Throw in the climbing Covid-19 statistics, a new variant, and it’s easy to understand why the prevailing mood is one of depression, anxiety and angst, rather than festivity.
Support Your Mental Health This Festive Season
The good news? There’s plenty you can do to boost your mental and emotional wellness at this time.
1. Release the pressure
No, you don’t have to feel as if it’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, you don’t have to go to another party if you don’t want to or don’t feel safe to do so. No, you don’t have to deck the halls. We receive a lot of messages from the media around this time of year, telling us how we ‘should’ be feeling, and the outcome is that we may feel guilty, resentful and out of sorts if we don’t fit in with the image of the ‘perfect’ festive break. The solution? Ditch the sense of obligation, and lower your expectations. The reality is that for some people, this time of year isn’t magical at all – it can be really hard. If you fit into this category, give yourself permission to feel unhappy.
2. Take care of the health basics
This is a message you would have heard many times over the past year, but that doesn’t make it any less valid: all the emotional ‘stuff’ is a lot easier to deal with if your physical wellbeing is taken care of. That means eating well (perhaps even giving up some of the indulgences of the season), getting enough sleep and exercising.
3. Don’t be afraid of disappointing others
The meaning of Christmas has become blurred behind a flurry of commercial messaging – which means that there is a heavy emphasis on extravagant gifting. That can place enormous pressure on those of us who are battling with the economic fallout from Covid – or who simply don’t want to buy into consumerism. What to do..? Stand your ground. Have a conversation with those who will share your celebrations and maybe set some ground rules: perhaps you can all agree to give presents to the children only, for example, or set a price limit on gifts. Accept that you may be able to please some of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time….
By the same token, try to resist some of the social pressure that comes with this time of year. If you don’t feel like the drama of an intense family or friends ‘get together’, explain that you’re happy to pop in for an hour or so, but cannot stay longer. See how it goes, don’t over commit.
4. Reach out to a health professional
It’s ironic that although more people than ever are suffering from mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, generally speaking society still stigmatises these conditions – to the extent that many remain reluctant to seek assistance when they might desperately need it. You could join a support app like the “Join Panda” . This app – you can find it on Apple or the Google store – provides a great solution in the form of a free-to-download app which makes it possible to access community support; check out information around mental wellness, and even get expert help, anonymously. The app, which is free of any charges in 2021, also has the functionality to track and monitor progress, using a gamified approach which makes the process far less daunting.
More support over the festive break
5. Gift yourself
It’s natural to think of others at this time of year, but concentrate on what will help you to remain calm and happy. Would it help to review and reset your boundaries? Do you need some time out – a quiet morning, a meditation, or a walk? Figure out what you need, and take the time to do it. A long chat with an old friend or a deep and meaningful one with a counsellor?
6. Plan ahead
It’s not possible to avoid all the stressors that come with the festive season. There will be work tasks to complete before travelling, travel chaos and activities to attend. There will be lots of indulgence that might leave you feeling physically sluggish and lacking the vitality to tackle problems. There will probably be the odd argument with a family member (or two). Try to plan your days to give yourself more support. This includes enough time to recuperate and revive after all that socialising. This will give you a little space to make plans that will be less stressful, like time out to do your hobbies.
About the author
Allan Sweidan is the Co-founder of the Panda App. Before co-founding Panda in 2020, Allan served as the CEO of the Akeso Group of Psychiatric Hospitals, which he co-founded in 2008. Starting with one hospital in Randburg, the Akeso group grew to 12 hospitals across 4 provinces before it was sold to Netcare in 2018. Since leaving Akeso/Netcare in late 2019, Allan has been actively involved in health-related start-ups, retirement villages and child and young adult focused NPOs. Allan graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce Degree from Wits University. He proceeded to pursue his interest in psychology, qualifying as a clinical psychologist in 1998. After spending some time working in the public health sector, he moved into a private practice specialising in the treatment of dual diagnosis disorders (addiction plus a psychiatric illness or psycho-social distress).As in previous ventures, the Panda app brings together Allan’s passion for both psychology and business.
Users of the app have free access to the ‘Forest’, which allows them to engage with a community of other app users who may be facing similar challenges. The app also offers assessment tools to enable users to measure their mental wellbeing. A gamified tracking tool lets users document and monitor the progress they are making on their personal mental health journey. Anonymity is key to so many health-support programmes, as many people are reluctant to publicly share their personal challenges, and this is core to the Panda app.