In a typical year, the festive season can be a time of celebration for some people and a time of poor mental health for others. But as we near the end of a unique year, it is understandable that the stress and anxiety we have felt may feel even stronger over Christmas.
The traditional expectations of Christmas have been replaced with some uncertainty for now. But one thing is for sure – alcohol won’t make you feel better. This Christmas, let’s look at at how alcohol can impact our mental health and focus on minding our own and our loved one’s mental health.
TIPS FOR POSITIVE MENTAL HEALTH this christmas
- Make time for family and friends: Good relationships are important for your mental health. It’s important that we feel connected and part of something. Spending time and sharing how you are feeling with family, friends and your community can have a positive impact on your mood and ability to deal with problems. The party season might look very different this year, but we can still keep up many of our usual social traditions. We just might have to be a bit more creative! Virtual carol singing, secret Santa, Christmas quiz nights… Why not start making your plans for your virtual festive catch-ups this week?
- Keep active: Regular exercise and being active release chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins trigger positive feelings in the body. This helps to lift your mood, reduce stress and anxiety and increases energy. As the winter evenings get darker, it can be harder to feel like getting out and active but simple actions like going for a walk can make a positive difference to how you feel. We’re better together so check in with a neighbour to see if they’d like to join you.
- Limit or cut out alcohol: Alcohol can contribute to the development of mental health problems including depression and anxiety, as well as making existing problems worse. In fact, drinking when you’re anxious or stressed to improve your mood can have the opposite effect. While alcohol may temporarily appear to ease feelings of stress or depression, over time the opposite effect may occur. With more social occasions providing more opportunities to drink alcohol, be mindful of how much you are drinking and always have no-alcohol options stocked up at home.
- Get plenty of rest: Aim to get 8-10 hours of sleep every night. Alcohol, even just a few drinks, can affect how well you sleep. This can lead to a bad night’s rest and you will have less energy the next day. Any anxiety you are experiencing may already be affecting your sleep, and alcohol will impact this further.
- Focus on the positives: Our thoughts are affected by things that are happening in our lives such as stress at work, relationships, financial burden. And especially during Christmas, absent loved ones. While it may not always seem true, we can control our thoughts. Try to think about each thought you have. Is it helpful or unhelpful? Focussing on unhelpful negative thoughts can drain energy and stop you from moving forward. More helpful, positive thoughts broaden a sense of possibility and opens up your mind to more options. Try to practise postivie thinking to experience some of the joy and goodwill associated with this season.
- Eat well: Christmas is a time of excess in so many ways but perhaps none more so than food. A balanced nutritious diet is just as important for mental health as it is for physical health. Junk food, fizzy drinks and foods high in sugar – which are all in abundance at this time of year – can give a short-term energy boost. However, this may lead to a sharp drop in blood sugar later, leading to low mood and anxiety. Drinking alcohol can lead to unhealthy eating habits while you are drinking and into the following day. Try to plan ahead by cooking extra meals or in larger quantities to freeze so you can eat healthily even when you don’t feel like cooking.
Alcohol’s impact on mental health
Alcohol is a depressant. It disrupts how the brain functions and affects our thoughts, feelings and actions. Alcohol affects the levels chemicals or neurotransmitters in our brain, for example, serotonin, which regulates happiness. This change to the brain processes causes the relaxed feeling you may get after your first drink. But this change is also responsible for feelings of anxiety or depression you may experience the next day. Regular drinking – and in particular, binge drinking, interferes with these chemicals in our brains that are needed for strong, balanced mental health.
The Drinkaware Index 2019 report found that many Irish adults are drinking for reasons associated with emotional wellbeing – 50% cited “coping” as a reason for drinking, and this rises to 64% for under-25s. The coping reasons cited include: ‘to cheer you up when in a bad mood or feeling stressed’; ‘to forget about your problems’; ‘because it helps when feeling depressed or anxious’.
KNOW THE GUIDELINES
Do you know if you are drinking within the HSE weekly low-risk alcohol guidelines? If not, you’re not alone – just 2% of Irish adults know this information. Remember, these are guidelines – not a target.
- Women: Less than 11 standard drinks (110g pure alcohol) spread out over the week, with at least two alcohol-free days
- Men: 17 standard drinks (170g pure alcohol) spread out over the week, with at least two alcohol-free days
Common examples of one standard drink are a half pint of lager/stout/cider, a 100ml glass of wine or pub measure (35.5ml) of spirits. It takes one hour for the body to process one standard drink but this is only a guide, as there are many different factors that will affect this time.
THINK ABOUT YOUR DRINKING HABITS
Today is a good day to consider if your drinking is affecting your mental health. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Am I drinking to change my mood?
- How is my mood the day after drinking?
- Is my drinking effecting my relationships with family/friends/colleagues?
If you feel you would like to reach out for support on this, see Support hub for details of national and local organisations that can help.