The holiday season is upon us once again. While the masses scramble for the perfect gift, supermarkets stock shelves with delicious holiday food and festive songs play on the radio, not everyone will be in the Christmas spirit.
For some people, this time of year is mentally challenging and can trigger thoughts and feelings they would rather forget. Feelings of depression, anxiety and loneliness are much more common than many of us realise. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. This blog looks into the factors that can affect our mental health at Christmas and what can be done to make the season more bearable.
How Christmas Affects Mental Health
There is no escaping Christmas. Each year festivities seem to start earlier. Shops often turn into winter wonderlands before the clocks turn back. Social media timelines are choked with ideas for the ‘perfect’ Christmas, and by late November (and in some companies earlier) the team Christmas Lunch email starts circulating.
It can all be very overwhelming, especially for those with mental health problems.
A YouGov poll found that 51% of women have found the whole Christmas experience to be stressful, while a Priory survey on the impact of Christmas on men, found that 53% of men felt lonely, even when surrounded by others. Suffering from a mental health condition like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression or social anxiety disorder can compound these feelings, making this time of year feel unbearable.
Common Causes of Holiday Woes
While everyone is different, there are some common Christmas themes to holiday negativity.
If you find yourself feeling down, perhaps these stressors or triggers are familiar to you or your loved ones:
- Overly high expectations – Are you trying to figure out what the ‘perfect’ Christmas is? Or how you can make it happen?
- Competition – Are you, your neighbours or family and friends trying to outdo one another?
- Holiday identity crisis – What’s the meaning of Christmas? Does it fit with who you are? Where you came from or what you believe in?
- Pressure to socialize – Do you feel pressured to spend time with people that you may not get along with or simply don’t want to be around?
- Loneliness – Are you having to get through the season without someone you love? Or, not have anyone at all?
- Financial inadequacy – Do you feel pressured to spend excessive amounts of money
- No one to turn to – Are you struggling because mental health services or other support systems are closed or away for the holidays?
No one gets what you’re going through! If you find yourself struggling with any of above, it can be extra difficult to find sympathy. After all, it’s the holiday season, shouldn’t everyone be happy?
Dealing with Depression at Christmas
If you suffer from depression, Christmas can be a particularly difficult time for you. Social media ideas of the perfect Christmas, the cheer, goodwill and good mood can be hard to deal with if you aren’t feeling so positive about life.
Symptoms of depression may include:
- Increased sadness
- Feeling hopeless
- Changes in appetite
- Low energy levels
Let’s not forget that Christmas comes at the time of year when the days are colder, shorter and darker, meaning we are exposed to less sunlight. This can affect those who struggle with SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder. Sometimes referred to as the ‘winter blues’ or ‘winter depression’, it is estimated that around a third of the UK population suffer from the symptoms of SAD.
Dealing with Loneliness and Bereavement at Christmas
Loneliness can be experienced by anyone, at any time of the year. You don’t have to be physically alone to experience it. Risk factors that can increase levels of loneliness and have a negative effect on our mental health include:
- Being unemployed
- Being widowed
- Being single
- Living alone
- Living with a long-term health condition or disability
- Being in an abusive relationship
- Being a carer
- Being from an ethnic minority group
- Being LGBTQ+
These factors can make you feel isolated and alone throughout the year and can put particular strain on how you manage mental health at Christmas.
Christmas can also trigger memories of loved ones who have passed away, combining grief with loneliness. Whether it’s a recent loss or long ago, it can seem like there is no getting away from the pain of them no longer being here.
Coping with Christmas: Tips for Managing your Mental Health
It’s important to make this season work for you. Try to fill your days with things that you want to do – this can help to keep you in a positive frame of mind.
Don’t feel guilty if you choose to opt out of events with family or friends. Protecting your mental wellbeing is key. Try not to limit your time to just watching TV and zoning out. But, if doing so helps, then of course, do so.
Set boundaries – Implementing and maintaining boundaries with family, friends and work colleagues can help to reduce strain on your mental wellbeing. Tell those in your circle, how you feel and why you need to set boundaries to protect your mental health. Communicating your desires may reduce future conflict, if they feel you are not doing your part.
Take care of yourself – Whether its making time for a hot bath, listening to music, meditating and being mindful, or journaling – taking time out for yourself can reduce Christmas stressors and lift your mood.
Rest – You don’t have to be everything to everyone. This can lead to burnout, and more mental health problems. Make time to rest. Both mental and physical rest will prove to be beneficial to you.
Get outdoors – If you don’t want to be bombarded with Christmas paraphernalia when you walk out the door, head to a local park, museum, or go to the cinema. Staying indoors, at home, can actually be detrimental to your mental health. But, going outside and taking advantage of the daylight hours may do you the world of good.
Live in the moment – Christmas falls at the end of the chronological year. This is a time when many start to plan for the new year but also look back on the year they have had. This isn’t always helpful when there have been events during the year that may not have gone so well.
Reach out – If you experience loneliness or need someone to talk to, try reaching out to people in your existing circle. And it may be daunting at first but joining local community groups, attending a Christmas service or volunteering, could introduce you to other people. Some of them may also have taken the plunge to combat their own loneliness.
Life is a rollercoaster of some good days and some not so good, so it is important to not be too hard on yourself. Enjoy the present, and look forward to the future, while remembering that you cannot change the past.
Where to Go for Help?
If you or someone you know experiences a mental health crisis over the Christmas period, there are some organisations that you can contact:
- Samaritans operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
- SANEline is open every day from 4:30pm – 10:30pm
- Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) are available daily from 5pm to midnight
Human Focus also have several blogs covering various aspects of mental health that you might find helpful.
Fancy Learning Some More?
Got some time to spare this Christmas? Why not learn more about mental health via the Human Focus website. You will find more blogs on the subject as well as a range of mental health courses that aim to improve your knowledge. Whether learning to better understand your own mental health, or that of a loved one or colleague, there is something for everyone.