The Christmas period can be bittersweet. On one hand, it’s the ‘most wonderful time of the year’; families get together, the house is decorated with lights, glitter and winter garlands, there is always a mince pie and sherry on the go and there’s no need for excuses when it comes to watching festive films back-to-back. On the other hand, Christmas can be a huge trigger for anxiety and leave you feeling painfully lonely and exhausted, just wanting to hibernate until it’s all over.
Being anxious before a get-together is something which is pretty standard for me. The stress of making conversation with people, finding the energy to put on something pretty and the worry that my sadness will get in the way of people having a good time, are nothing out of the ordinary. So I guess it’s only logical, if there is anything logical about anxiety, that a whole month filled with festive social events and a pressure to be jolly is likely to put me on edge.
I think the hardest part about Christmas, more so than the anxiety-provoking situations themselves, is the expectation for you to be happy and festive for the entirety of December and into the early hours of the New Year. Receiving gifts, going to parties and the general culmination of food, friends and festive songs are assumed to be pleasantries to which we should look forward. However, regardless of how grateful you are and how much you’d like to truly feel up for the celebrations, if you’re not feeling 100%, being surrounded by such widespread joy and elation can be hugely isolating.
For many people, Christmas is a difficult period financially or because it triggers memories of loved ones who are no longer with them. However, these things are somewhat more socially acceptable reasons for not ‘feeling up to it’ or for tearing up during the festive season. If you’re struggling with your mental health, it goes against everything around you to say that you’re feeling sad for no reason or to explain that you’re nervous about a million and one things that should be enjoyable; you don’t want to bring a downer on anyone else and you don’t want anyone to think you’re being ungrateful or miserable.
So if we don’t feel comfortable talking about our mental health with those around us this Christmas, how do we manage those feelings of helplessness, isolation and anxiety? Here are a few of the things that I have found to be useful to distract myself from getting caught up in the negative thinking spiral that makes me dread Christmas.
- Find time for yourself: This goes for all the other eleven months of the calendar year, so why can’t it stand for December too? We all know that the social calendar is often jam-packed throughout the run-up to Christmas, but you don’t have to say yes to everything! Find time to be on your own or with someone who knows how things are for you. Do things that are completely unrelated to Christmas; have a bath, go for a walk, play sport, bake a cake – just because Christmas is coming doesn’t mean that it has to take over your usual routine.
- Stay connected: For many people who have regular contact with health services or even those who just take comfort from knowing that someone is at the end of the phone should they need, Christmas can be stressful. Most GP surgeries and community-based support teams have reduced opening hours and even though you might not usually have daily contact, knowing that your usual ‘go-to’ won’t be available, can trigger high anxiety levels. Make sure you’ve spoken to your doctor or nurse and devised a plan for contact over the holidays. Remember that there is ALWAYS someone whether it be a helpline, out of hours doctor or A&E.
- Don’t be worried about showing how you’re feeling: Much easier said than done, I know, but bottling up emotions often makes things so much worse. Even if you don’t feel like you can tell someone around you, make sure you spend time somewhere that you don’t have to put on a happy front or find an alternative outlet for those feelings; cry a bit, write things down or ring a support line and talk things through with someone. I swear you’ll feel better afterwards!
- Glitter and pretty lights: It’s a fairly personal one but I find that putting on a sparkly dress or painting my nails in a festive colour, helps to distract me and to make me ‘feel the part’. Despite my head screaming at me to just put on my PJs and tie my hair in a top-knot, I try to relish the fact that Christmas means there is no excuse needed for excessive glitter and sparkles, which always help to make me smile.
- See the bigger picture: Christmas cards, films and music mostly portray Christmas to be a time of perfect happiness, but it isn’t realistic. Not every day has to be perfect for you to enjoy the Christmas break. Enjoy what you can, miss the events that you’re not feeling up to (without feeling guilty) and apply your usual coping strategies to whatever comes your way.
Wishing you all the happiest Christmas possible,