Fostering healthy coping tools at Christmas/during the holidays

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Christmas is sold to us as the most wonderful time of year but for many of us whose life doesn’t resemble the John Lewis ad, the festive period can be tough time.

The stresses of difficult family ties, concerns for the future or financial fears can bring to the fore earlier traumas and collectively we are also absorbing the multiple anxieties of those around us. 

The ‘Christmas Creep’ – that is, when retail giants start promoting their wares, seems to start earlier every year, and that means we have months of being surrounded by festive cheer and a painfully unrealistic ideal of what life should look like.

During times like this, it might be difficult to stay on top of how much we are drinking, or indeed there might be an inclination to drink more heavily and more frequently as we reach out for something to numb the tension.

Unfortunately, this leads to a corresponding rise in anxiety, depression and irritability and so to greater stresses. Relationships may be also be coming under pressure as the drinking is increasing. 

However, this can also be a time when we can develop healthy coping tools that will last long beyond Christmas. Here are some ways to mind our mental health while observing a low-risk relationship with alcohol.  

1. Stay within the weekly low-risk alcohol guidelines  

 Low-risk drinking reduces the risk of alcohol-related problems. The recommended weekly low-risk alcohol guidelines are less than: 

  • 11 standard drinks for women
  • 17 standard drinks for men 

Drinks should be spread out over the week –no more than 2 SD/day for men, or 1 SD/day for women. Have 2-3 alcohol-free days per week. 

For more on these guidelines and what is a standard drink check out the HSE site askaboutalcohol.ie

The Ask About Alcohol drinks calculator also provides fact-based non-judgmental information about how drinking affects health, wallet and weight. 

2. Look after your mental health & wellbeing  

This is a difficult time, but it doesn’t have to be as hard as we might think. The increased time spent at home during the holidays can be tough for some families but it can also be an opportunity to reconnect with trusted loved ones or our ‘chosen family’ such as close friends. Connecting with others can help us regain a sense of purpose and belonging. It’s also important to get out and about and connect with nature.  If possible, we should include activities in our routine, such as walking, running, cycling or gardening. Even in the cold weather, if we can, spend time in green, natural space, this can benefit both our mental and physical wellbeing. It can improve mood, reduce feelings of stress or anger, and help us relax a little. These are healthy coping mechanisms that, if fostered now, will endure long after this situation is over. Click here for more advice from Mental Health Ireland on wellbeing during tough times.  

Alcohol can pose a definite risk to our mental health and can make the symptoms of mental health conditions worse. However, your mood can improve when you cut down or stop drinking. For more on this see Ask About Alcohol’s information on mental health and alcohol. 

3. Stick to routines 

Any sort of daily structure can go out the door over Christmas so try to stick to routines including eating well, staying active, going to bed on time and getting up at the usual time. Sticking with routine will help to ensure a sense of normality. So even though life as usual has been interrupted, we should try to maintain structure to our day.  Be aware of sleep patterns and the things that might help to get a good night’s sleep, for example having a bath, winding down screen-time, avoiding drinks like coffee, tea and alcohol. If the uncertainty of the current situation is causing you to lose sleep, talk about your worries with friends and family rather than trying to cope alone.   For tips on keeping healthy mentally and physically read the HSE advice here and Healthy Ireland advice here. The HSE also has specific advice on sleeping well. During some down time, why not check out the Mental Health Ireland’s podcasts, specifically those on sleeping and nutrition

4. Find alcohol-free ways to manage in these tough times

When many workplaces are closed, we are likely to have more time than usual to fill, and sometimes it is tempting to use alcohol to fill this void. Be wary as this will easily become an unhealthy habit, or way to cope. Rest assured, there are lots of other beneficial ways to spend your time. Reconnecting with hobbies or interests; connecting with loved ones, learning a new skill or engaging in some mindfulness, meditation or relaxation techniques. For more tips, check out the Alcohol Change UK blog here.   

5. Help is still available 

There are useful self-help strategies at Ask About Alcohol which go through the steps of deciding to change, planning to change and actually changing drinking behaviour. 

If you are currently in recovery or indeed would like to access individual help for the first time, you may be concerned about how you will receive it under ‘physical distancing’ conditions.  There are lots of great options for receiving support online or over the phone:  

  • The HSE Drug and Alcohol Helpline and email support service is open Monday to Friday 9.30am -5.30pm and is available at 1800 459 459 and at he******@hs*.ie.
  • Some AA meetings are still going ahead and you can check them by calling the contact number for your area as listed on the Alcoholics Anonymous website alcoholicsanonymous.ie/
  • There are also online meetings through smartrecovery.org
  • Al Anon helpline – For people troubled by someone else’s drinking is open every day 10am – 10pm, Call (01) 8732699 Email in**@al****.ie and online at alanon.ie

For mental health support, the HSE’s new phone service gives information about different supports and services available and how to access them. The number is 1800 742 444.    

The Samaritans can be contacted 24/7 either by phone on free to call 116 123, or by email to **@sa********.ie

6. Take a break from the 24-hour news cycle 

The links between anxiety, depression and alcohol are well established. Logging off from social media and the 24/7 news cycle will ease anxiety and help us avoid using drinking as a coping mechanism. While it’s true there is a lot of positive help online, take care to stay away from negative social sites, social media that show the ‘perfect snapshot’ of people’s Christmas experiences. Find out more about how to disconnect from negative digital spaces here.  Also, beware of fake news and always get your information from reliable sources. RTE is providing easy to access information for young people – and parents, giving factual information and tips on how to keep young people entertained. Visit Mental Health Ireland’s website for resources and information that can support you during the holidays.

These guidelines were compiled by Alcohol Action Ireland in partnership with Mental Health Ireland, and aided by Alcohol Change UK.

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