Turn on your inner lights this Christmas

Christmas lights

If your home is anything like our office, it will be festooned with tinsel and fairy lights. You can barely move in our office without bumping into a bauble or slaloming past a Christmas tree.

There is so much about the Christmas traditions to stimulate our senses. The power of decorations, food, cards and presents is their signal that we are in a special season and a time for celebration.

The paradox

As a species we are attracted to the sparkly, the new, the opportunity for immediate gratification. Yet all of those things point our attention to the external world; to what we can see, taste and touch.  Despite our natural orientation to all that twinkles, all we know about effectively managing our mental health points us in a different direction – to the importance of our inner lives. 

Often engaging with our inner emotional lives – our moods, feelings and thoughts and the behaviours they lead to – can be sidelined to the corner of our lives. Taking time to reflect, think, relax and too often be relegated in importance behind the master schedule or pushed aside for something more comfortable.

At the Mental Health Foundation, we are clear that we need a culture shift that radically re-prioritises increasing our understanding of our inner worlds. We need to learn more about our own triggers for poor mental health and the factors that can protect us. 

The evidence is building

There has been a series of scientific studies on activity that draws us away from our schedules and helps us to practice just being instead. One example is 'therapeutic horticulture' – which basically means gardening – which has shown it can improve your mental health. In his excellent new book Lost Connections Johann Hari highlights one study that showed that a gardening program in Norway had double the effect of anti-depressants for the depressed people who took part. 

An excessive outward focus (often called materialism) isn’t just bad for the planet, it's bad for our inner lives. It means we are looking in the wrong places for the things that bring us closer to good mental health. As many therapists testify, it is sometimes when the comforts of life are stripped away from us that we take the time to work out what really makes us tick and how we can strengthen our resilience.

Tips for your mental health this Christmas

We asked staff and supporters what they do to look after their mental health at Christmas time. They gave an excellent range of tips that anyone can try.

What can you do for your mental health this Christmas?

In his epic book Man’s Search For Meaning, psychiatrist Victor Frankl writes powerfully about how he learnt to 'intensify his inner life' in his struggle for survival at the concentration camps of Auschwitz. Despite the depravity and injustice that he faced every day, Frankl was able to find a measure of dignity and even joy as he fought off the threat of despair.  Finding a purpose in pain, Frankl argues, is an essential survival skill.

We know that our mental health can be dramatically affected by negative circumstances in our lives. It is much harder to be able find time to garden, for example, if you are experiencing job insecurity, homelessness or discrimination. All forms of trauma and stress increase our risks to poor mental health. However, as Frankl’s example shows, investing in our inner lives is still  an option open to all of us. It is a bit like taking out a free insurance policy to give us a measure of protection when the difficult times do come. This process of becoming more aware of our mental health is one of the key steps to preventing and recovering from mental health problems.

What can you do?

This Christmas, ask yourself what you can do to focus inwards, to come off auto-pilot and turn on the beauty of your inner lights?

For me, 10 minutes of mindfulness or just slow breathing is the thing that helps me connect with the present. I need that time to feel more vividly alive. Our own evidence from our online mindfulness course shows just how effective mindfulness is: it really works.  

But your inner world is different from mine. Experiment with what works for you.

Don’t be trapped by the 'trappings' of Christmas. Let your inner lights shine!

Tips for your mental health this Christmas

We asked staff and supporters what they do to look after their mental health at Christmas time. They gave an excellent range of tips that anyone can try.

What can you do for your mental health this Christmas?