Looking after your mental health over the holidays
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The lead-up to Christmas and New Year’s Eve can be filled with pressure. Amongst the joy and relaxation, this year many of us are also grappling with financial uncertainty and the continued effects of the pandemic. Wellington-based clinical psychologist Jacqui Maguire has some tips and tricks for getting back to a regenerative mindset, reminding us of the simple things we can do to boost our wellbeing without having to spend money, and look after our mental health in uncertain times.

When dealing with the pressures of the Christmas holidays, Jacqui says we should start by asking ourselves: “Are the pressures I’m feeling real, or have I imposed them on myself?”

If the pressures are self-imposed, then Jacqui says it’s about having a real conversation with yourself, your significant other, or immediate whānau. "Ask yourself: Have we always put this expectation on ourselves to spend a lot of money? Are we placing ourselves in social situations where we feel like we should go, rather than want to go?” Identifying your emotional experience can be helpful here, she explains. “Talk about how you might want to spend the summer period and how you want to feel through it. If you wish to feel calm or enjoyment or relaxation or authentic connection – use that as your compass and make decisions based on that.”

There are many pressures, however, that are not self-imposed – from financial hardship to attending mandatory gatherings you aren’t looking forward to. For those, Jacqui suggests setting boundaries for yourself. “It might be as simple as saying, ’Yes, I’ll go to that event, but only for an hour.’” Jacqui points out that looking after your baseline mental health is crucial during the festive season, whether that means getting in a bit of exercise, being in nature, eating good food, getting good sleep – whatever you need to keep it in check.

When it comes to financial worries, Jacqui stresses the importance of communication. “Many New Zealanders are struggling financially this year, and they may not want to talk about their financial situation because of fear or shame. But if you can have honest and transparent conversations about your problems with someone you trust, that is the most useful pathway.”

Pressures around gifting

The expectation to gift expensive presents at this time of year can put extra strain on already stretched budgets, but Jacqui has some practical suggestions. “Let’s ask ourselves, how do we make this reasonable for everybody? Is it doing a Secret Santa where you only have to buy one present, or setting a budget around it? Do we have a Christmas where we make things for each other? Or where we do something for the community? Perhaps you can start the conversation by framing it more generally, by saying something like, ‘We know it's a pretty hard economic climate out there.’”

Managing expectations from tamariki and rangatahi about gifts or holiday plans can be tricky, but Jacqui’s policy stays with communication. “Where possible, be open and honest in an age-appropriate manner. If you’ve got teenagers, then you can have a frank conversation around the cost of living, rates of inflation and what that means. Share the dilemma, ask them their thoughts. Teens can have that conversation with you.”

For younger children, Jacqui suggests setting expectations before Christmas Day. “You can start the chat with something like, ‘Hey, have you seen all that stuff in the news about how petrol and food is expensive? Santa’s on a budget this year.’ That way the focus goes from presents to what you actually want to do together as a family. You don’t have to apologise or feel guilty, it is a tricky time and kids are flexible, they’ll adapt.”

“Ask your whānau what experiences they’d like over summer and think about how can you can create them locally. I think that comes down to being present and time off screens, getting people together. If you can create that over summer, then you’re on a winning path,” she adds.

“My parents didn’t have a lot of money growing up, we weren’t jet-setting off on planes, we camped around New Zealand. We’d have clusters of families that would go back to basics – we’d swim at the beach, play 500 at night, cook communal meals, they weren’t expensive holidays. But they were my favourite memories.”

Ongoing anxiety around COVID-19

It’s not just making ends meet that’s worrying many New Zealanders – some of us also continue to experience anxiety and fear around contracting COVID-19, particularly during the busy holiday season. Jacqui points out that people have to identify their own health needs. “If you are worried and if you’ve got vulnerabilities, then acknowledge that and work out what you need to put in place. It comes back to what’s in your control. It’s about looking at what will help make you feel calm and able to engage with others safely.” She brings it back to communication again. “You can suggest to those around you that you want to do something different this year; something that involves fewer people and less risk.”
What brain space are you in?

When dealing with uncertain times, how do we stay positive and build resilience when so much feels unknown? Jacqui says to start by identifying what brain space you are in.
  • Red brain - This is ‘panic’ mode.
  • Orange brain - This is your drive, need to achieve, being really busy and juggling multiple tasks all the time.
  • Green brain - Calm, having the ability to hold perspective and make good decisions.
“I get people to track it. For example, if someone is in panic (red brain), then it’s about physiologically using strategies to calm them down, like breathing deeply, adding some recovery aspects or little breaks in their day, and staying grounded in the present using their senses.”

“If you’re living in orange brain – feeling fuzzy and finding it hard to problem-solve – then it’s about slowing down. In times of uncertainty, your brain needs more time to process emotions and what’s going on around you. Take things out of the calendar and try to do something that grounds you – being able to focus on one task at a time is really important.”

Jacqui also believes it’s about naming what you’re feeling. “I use the term ‘name it to tame it’. When you name what you’re feeling, it acknowledges that experience to your brain, which then calms you down. If you’re concerned about what’s going to happen in the future, try to name that and say, ‘I am worried’. You’ll then find those feelings start to hold back a bit.”
For more simple tips and ideas on how to boost your wellbeing this summer, order your free poster