“I swear it starts earlier and earlier” we say . . . “It’s too soon!” we cry . . . “Did you know [fill in as appropriate] has their Christmas tree up already?!” … It’s an age-old tale . . .
As this time of year approaches, and we notice that the commercial markers of Christmas have started earlier and earlier, these comments and conversations often reflect something deeper and more meaningful occurring in us, as opposed to simply remarking on a shops widow display or whether, or not, you’re ready for mince pies.
The reality is that despite the festivity around us, Christmas can be a difficult time for many, and as a consequence, people think of it earlier, because it triggers uncomfortable, unhappy or anxious feelings within them. This is reflected in the therapy room, when anxieties and sadness’s evoked about Christmas are discussed as early as October.
Broadly, the two themes that Christmas can bring up for individuals can be categorised into self-reflection and self-expectation. There can be a rumination and compare and despair that can occur because of what we feel we don’t have personally . . . Particularly in the areas of ‘relationships’ and ‘finances’. Or a sense of expectation of what Christmas should be, but doesn’t feel to be, that causes sadness or anxiety.
- People focus on what they feel they don’t have, and this can be dominant at Christmas.
Christmas focuses on personal connection – with partners, children, family and friends. Because of this focus, this time of year can cause people to feel isolated in relation to these things. Whether that’s being single when everyone appears to be in relationships, not having children at a time when they seem to be the focus of the season, not having parents, or feeling disconnected from people in other ways.
- In seeming opposition to this is the upset and stress that can be caused by feeling “torn” at Christmas time between sets of families or people, leading to feelings of guilt, stress, anger, sadness . . .
- Similarly, Christmas can feel pressurised in relation to money, and we compare how much money we feel we have or don’t have in relation to others.
- Consequently, people can feel pressure (either commercially or self-induced) to spend lots of money at Christmas and this can cause either a dominant or low-level anxiety about increased debt and how to handle this in the months to follow.
- We can also place expectations on ourselves to spend and live up to an ‘ideal’ of what Christmas ‘should’ look like.
- It can be a time when bereavement, and the death of people or a pet that we have loved can feel far stronger and more powerful. Individuals can feel the pain and loneliness of this loss more acutely at Christmas.Often separation, grief and loneliness are not connected to a death, but a loss of something else – perhaps being in a different country to family or friends, recently losing a job, falling out with a friend or going through a separation / divorce. These losses are experienced as a grief and can feel heightened at a time of year that focuses on connection, togetherness and family as well as a commercial time of year that can feel focused on money.
- For others, anxieties about social gatherings, spending time with people they would rather not, or social expectations all heighten around Christmas.
A combination of all, some, or other factors to those listed above can also increase STRESS. Christmas is perhaps causing us to ruminate about something we are unhappy about, or causing us to place ourselves under pressure and expectation. Combine this with the fact we try to plan, organise and fit in more at this time of year, eat and drink more than we perhaps would normally, its darker, colder . . . and it’s easy to see how stress levels can rise quickly.
If you are currently feeling, depressed, low in mood or anxious , what can you do to help?
- When depression feels serious, seek out the help of a professional. If you’re unsure how to do this, booking an appointment with a GP is the first step and you can discuss counselling services and / or medication with them, depending on what feels right for you.
- Whether that’s around money or who you spend Christmas with. Although it will feel difficult to talk to people about what feels important to you about where you are and who you are with at Christmas, the important thing is that you feel you have said what it is you are feeling, rather than staying silent and “brooding”
- Find a way to speak to those that matter to you . . . This may not have the reaction you will want, but saying out loud what’s going on for you is an important step towards creating boundaries for yourself. It can also lead to a place of compromise and shared expectations.
- Boundaries can also be great in terms of stress – practice saying no! Low self-esteem and self-care are linked. What do you want to do / go to and what do you not? Do you want to fit that in / organise that? Pause and try to balance what’s realistic and what will feel good versus what isn’t and doesn’t.
- These boundaries are similar in relation to what you spend, and how you give gifts. Are there different ways (e.g. experiences, time, homemade) that you can give as gifts to people at Christmas? And / or, can you have an honest conversation with relevant individuals about budgets/ amounts or what would be useful and realistic for you this year?
- Although hard, try not to buy in to a commercial concept of what Christmas “should” look like. The “perfect” representation (whether around people, objects or situations) can create expectation and attachment to an “idea” rather than keeping you grounded in the present and trying to enjoy and appreciate the reality of who and what you do have and the moment you are in as much as you can
- These realistic expectations will also help when stress occurs both in the build up to, and during the holiday period such as. For example, a pet attacks the food on the day, a family member says or does something that feels upsetting, the kitchen is a mess and you feel overwhelmed. This is reality in comparison to “ideas” and accepting and embracing this is more than half the battle to feeling better.
- In the same way, if you are not with who you want to be with, you are struggling with loneliness or you don’t feel the “things you should be feeling at this time”. That’s okay. Although hard, try to let go of the battle with “I should feel something else”. Or “It’s Christmas and I want to feel differently but I can’t”. Allowing the feelings that are there to be there, accepting them and being kind to yourself as you go through them can release you from a battle that can cause those feelings to feel worse by placing expectations on yourself.
Being kind to yourself and present
- Similarly, trying to appreciate and enjoy what’s good now, in the present. E.g. Is their good music, food, people, a nice room? Christmas can heighten thoughts and feelings that pull you into the past, or make you anxious about the future, and in so doing you miss the present.
- Remember that the past has gone and can’t be changed, the future is yet to happen, what you do have is now, and what can be found in the now to feel good about, or grateful for?
- Doing charity, in some form, at Christmas can help if you yourself are feeling low. There are lots of ways, big and small, both in person and in monetary ways that you can give at Christmas time.
- What do you have that you are grateful for? Who can you connect with, or forge deeper connections with at Christmas?
- What activities bring you joy? Take action and do them.
- Ever written a gratitude letter? Write a letter / note / card to someone you are grateful for and deliver it to them at Christmas.
- Engage in loving kindness and generosity; with yourself first, and then with others
If you yourself do not struggle at Christmas and do not find it a time where the blues can feel stronger or your anxiety rises, this can be a powerful time of year to connect with a person or people that you know do find it difficult.
To feel vulnerable, to feel grief, to feel longing for things we don’t have can feel more pronounced at this time of year.
Yet perhaps we try to distract ourselves from these feelings at Christmas? Literally with twinkly lights and the notion that everything will be perfect. The reality is that things are not perfect. What if we turned inward and allowed ourselves to feel that? To be okay with that? To banish the notion of perfect in favour of, as Brene Brown puts it, “magic in the mess”?