Celebrating Well: Promoting mental wellbeing during the Chinese New Year

While it's a time for celebration, the pressure to 'be merry' can overshadow mental health concerns

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The Lunar New Year, the Year of the Wood Dragon, will begin on Feb. 10, 2024, bringing festivities, family reunions, and delicious feasts. While it's a time for celebration, the pressure to "be merry" can overshadow mental health concerns.

Recently, the Philippine Mental Health Association Inc. (PMHA) voiced its apprehension regarding the escalating "epidemic of mental health crisis" in the country.

Dr. Cornelio Banaag Jr., the president of PMHA, sounded the alarm during a World Mental Health Day event in Cagayan de Oro City last year. He highlighted a substantial increase in mental health concerns amid and following the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. Dr. Banaag emphasized the silent nature of this epidemic, underscoring the crucial need to address it directly.

So, this coming Lunar New Year, we asked Jan Castañeda, Client and Provider Engagement Executive of Mindcare Club and a consultant at We Thrive Wellbeing and Consultancy Services, for his opinion on how to take care of our mental health.

Jan has been a member of the LGBT Psychology Special Interest Group of the Psychological Association of the Philippines since 2013 and served as Program Associate with the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus from 2016 to 2021. He has worked within other contexts, such as the UP Center for Women's Studies, the Pambansang Samahan sa Sikolohiyang Pilipino, and the Epidemiology Bureau of the Department of Health.

According to him, there are specific mindfulness or relaxation techniques that can be effective in promoting mental wellbeing during the busy and sometimes overwhelming times of celebration.

Jan discussed the importance of mindfulness and relaxation techniques during busy seasons to promote mental well-being. He emphasizes the core concept of self-care, which involves addressing various aspects of life, such as physical wellness, meaningful activities, and the practice of beliefs and values. 

"Self-care, at its core, is about looking after your life, with all its complexities. When you are able to take care of the different aspects of life that are important - whether that's your physical wellness, your sense of the meaningfulness of the things you do, your ability to practice your beliefs and values, and so on - everything else follows," he said.

Jan Castañeda, Client and Provider Engagement Executive of Mindcare Club and a consultant at We Thrive Wellbeing and Consultancy Services

Rather than prescribing specific techniques, Jan suggests to consider individual factors like attention, resources, mindset, and relationships when determining self-care practices.

Jan also shared to us the International Self-Care Foundation's proposed questions that serves as a starting point for self-care decisions. 

These questions focus on "health literacy" for informed self-care choices, understanding "mental well-being" factors, incorporating "physical activity" into daily life, practicing "healthy eating" habits, and considering "risk avoidance or mitigation" by assessing habits and lifestyle choices.

Warning signs

During our conversation, Jan also shared insights on detecting signs of strain in our loved ones' mental health. What warning signs of mental health issues should people be mindful of during the Chinese New Year, and what steps can they take if someone recognizes these signs in themselves or others?

"As a general rule, we should always approach mental health concerns from a place of calm. Not every so-called "red flag" is a cause for alarm; often, what we think of as 'distress' are reasonable responses to major life experiences, which can include transitions like new years," he said.

Nevertheless, we can enhance our support for each other by being attentive to indicators that suggest someone may be experiencing challenges that could affect their ability to cope effectively.

Jan shared The American Psychiatric Association's list of warning signs for mental health issues, including changes in sleep and eating habits, mood alterations, social withdrawal, loss of interest in enjoyable activities, a decline in usual functioning, increased nervousness, heightened sensitivity to stimuli, cognitive difficulties, and the display of out-of-character behaviors and beliefs.

Finally, we asked Jan for suggestions on incorporating gratitude and positive thinking into the celebrations to enhance overall mental health and resilience.

"When we think of 'gratitude,' we can think of it as a discipline; training your mind to become more aware of genuinely wonderful experiences, and to become more able to savor and take in these experiences," Jan shared. "And as a discipline, this requires practice. But honestly, not as much practice as we think. It is truly as simple as setting aside some time to write them down. Celebrations are certainly an easy point of reference: gratitude for the big wins, gratitude for the lessons learned, or gratitude for the unexpected good stuff."

And so, as we eagerly approach the Lunar New Year, ushering in the auspicious Year of the Wood Dragon on Feb. 10, the anticipation of festivities, family reunions, and delicious feasts fills the air. 

Amidst the joyous celebration, it's essential to acknowledge the potential overshadowing of mental health concerns, where we are reminded of the significance of self-care, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques during these busy times. 

As we embark on this new lunar cycle, let us carry these insights forward, fostering a culture of understanding, compassion, and gratitude, ensuring that the Year of the Wood Dragon is marked not only by external celebrations but also by an internal commitment to the wellbeing of ourselves and those around us.