Is Christmas affecting your mental health? Let’s look at some key ways to survive the festive season — and maybe even thrive…
Christmas is complicated.
Sometimes, it’s important to just pause and acknowledge that fact. Because alongside all the magic, sparkle and parties, there can be a sleigh’s worth of stress and anxiety too.
All sorts of things can affect our mental and emotional wellbeing at Christmas. For instance, you can find yourself caught in a blizzard of commitments, demands and expectations. Plus painful memories, personal losses or the absence of loved ones can all add a layer of grief to the season. Throw in financial worries and a huge pressure to be upbeat, and who could blame you for wanting to hide away from it all?
Some of us might find that Christmas with our relatives brings up old tensions, triggers and wounds that feel totally overwhelming. Others might find ourselves isolated and alone for a whole host of reasons, including death, divorce or social distancing. Some of us might also have family members with complex physical or mental challenges, meaning that Christmas Day doesn’t necessarily feel as carefree as we might wish. Others can face agonising addiction or eating issues during the festive season, or have loved ones who struggle with this. Some of us might also be dealing with a mental health condition like Seasonal Affective Disorder, which can make winter all the more difficult.
So if you are struggling in any way at all right now, then you are not alone. However, the good news is that there are various ways of managing the stresses of the festive season. To start with, here are five gifts that you can give yourself to make Christmas a little easier this year:
It is okay to say ‘no’ at Christmas.
So many of us have been conditioned to think the opposite — that somehow, we must sacrifice our wellbeing for the sake of others at this time of year. But this isn’t the case, as your mental and emotional self-care always matter. In other words, boundaries are important 365 days of the year – no one should ask you to abandon them in December.
So if you think that Christmas with your relatives could be harmful, stressful or overwhelming in any way, then it’s okay to say ‘no’ to it. Whether those reasons are related to childhood trauma, narcissistic family members, a lack of acceptance of your lifestyle — or just a need to take a rest from it all this year — saying no is well within your rights.
After all, it’s easy to hope that certain family members will magically behave better on Christmas Day, that they won’t be rude, critical or difficult. But if you’ve consistently had the opposite experience then sadly, the chances are this won’t be the case. So why not do things differently this year and spend the day in a way that suits you best?
Boundaries can also be about compromise and expectation setting too. For instance, maybe you would be willing to visit your in-laws on the 25th, but only if they agree to not criticise your parenting style. Or maybe you would be happy to have Christmas lunch with your parents, but on the understanding that if your dad drinks too much, you will leave.
The important thing is working out what is best for your own mental health and wellbeing over the festive season, then making a plan and sticking to it. It’s okay to protect your inner child at this time because right now, they probably need you more than ever.
Every year we are bombarded with TV, film and advertising images showing ‘perfect’ families enjoying idyllic Christmases. Although these images are usually designed to sell us a product or ideal, it can be easy to confuse them for reality — to feel that somehow, you are ‘doing Christmas wrong’ in comparison.
As a result, you might feel inadequate, ashamed or somehow a failure, or that you have somehow missed out on having the happy and harmonious family of your dreams. You might also put a lot of pressure on yourself to create a perfect Christmas for your loved ones, burning yourself out with cooking, cleaning, decorating, visiting and gift buying. In fact, this is a time when the inner critic can totally take over and run the show, leaving you mentally and emotionally exhausted.
That’s why sometimes it is crucial to pause, breathe and forgive yourself for not being able to create a ‘picture perfect’ Christmas. Try to show yourself the love that you believe others deserve this season. After all, why are you any less deserving of compassion than they are?
In the words of Sharon Salzber, author of Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, ‘You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.’
Also, bear in mind that very few of us can ever hope to create a Christmas Day worthy of a magazine centrepiece (those images on Instagram are usually just a well-filtered illusion). Instead, many of us will have a day with a side dish of family baggage, a lopsided tree from the loft and a turkey that’s just a tad on the dry side.
And that’s okay. Instead of trying to reach for an impossible ideal, aim for a ‘good enough’ Yuletide where you are a good enough version of yourself. Everything might not go perfectly (and let’s face it, someone is bound to complain about the sprouts), but practice self-compassion, let yourself off the hook and allow mistakes to happen. You might even find that you enjoy the day all the more by doing so.
For many of us, one of our longest holidays of the year is over the festive season. Yet ironically, by the time we return to work in the new year, we can often find ourselves totally burned out — even more so than we were before. This is because between shopping, planning, socialising, putting up decorations and seeing family (as well as the million other little tasks that take up our time) it’s easy to overlook relaxation over Christmas.
That’s why it’s really important to schedule in rest time, where you take at least a few days off to do whatever brings you joy (which can include doing absolutely nothing). If this feels impossible, it might be helpful to make a list differentiating between ‘optional’ and ‘essential’ festive tasks.
For instance, is writing and posting cards to everyone something that would bring you genuine happiness? Or is it an exhausting tradition that you’d much rather ditch in favour of some you time and watching The Muppet Christmas Carol?
Remember that self-care is especially important in winter, so don’t let yourself get burned out by too many demands. Instead, leave time to check in with yourself and listen to what you need — whether that be staying in and getting cosy, catching up with old friends or catching up on sleep.
Related to the above, you can also give yourself permission to go totally lowkey this Christmas. Decide what really matters to you about this time of year — for instance, connecting with loved ones, relaxing at home or embracing the spiritual aspects of Noel — then let go of the rest.
Can’t face the office party for whatever reason? Make a polite excuse and avoid it. Don’t want to cook a three-course Christmas feast? Order a Chinese takeaway instead. Feel overwhelmed about buying piles of presents for everyone? Suggest to your relatives that you do a ‘Kris Kringle’ or Secret Santa, or just exchange one small token gift each.
A simpler Christmas will not only benefit your wellbeing, it will also be much easier on your bank account, removing any potential financial stresses in the new year.
Christmas can be hard. Even if you love the whole festive season build up, you might also find that painful and conflicted emotions are mixed in with the excitement. These could include anger, grief, loneliness, anxiety, frustration, sadness, confusion, disappointment and loss.
If this is the case, then it is okay to reach out and get support. You are not ‘failing’ by not feeling happy at Christmas — for all the reasons we’ve looked at and more, lots of people struggle at this time.
A good, caring therapist can help you to navigate the many stressors of the festive season, from family conflicts to bereavement to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). They can also help you with ongoing challenges that might flare up at this time of year, including perfectionism, social isolation, difficulty setting boundaries, addiction, eating issues or marriage problems.
Christmas can be wonderful, and complicated, and difficult — and it can be all of these things at once. It is easy to feel that you are the only one struggling right now, especially when everyone else seems to be smiling. But remember that behind those smiles people might be hiding their own secret pains and fears.
So don’t be afraid to reach out for help from family, friends or a therapist, if needed. Because by learning to embrace the messy and imperfect parts of Christmas, you might even experience a deeper sense of peace and joy as a result.
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