Picture this: family gathered round the fire, the sweet smell of cinnamon fills the air, mulled wine is flowing, Bing Crosby is dreaming of a white Christmas while the snow falls outside.
Perfect, isn’t it?
It’s also completely unrealistic.
Christmas is a time to be merry and bright, but it can be the most difficult time of the year for a lot of people.
I haven’t written this post to dampen spirits or suck the joy out of anything. I’m trying to give a realistic picture of what it can be like for people. Which can be quite hard when you only have words on a page.
For those with mental ill health or generally struggling to cope, Christmas can be next to impossible.
Everyone’s circumstances are different and you never really know what people are dealing with. Nobody is immune to it.
The pressure to do Christmas ‘right’ can have seriously negative effects on people, regardless of whether or not they have a diagnosis.
We’ve spoken before about how you don’t need a diagnosis to invest in your mental health.
So, as always, this post is for everyone.
Christmas brings with it a lot of expectations. They’re unrealistic at best, ask too much of us and generally set us up to fail.
It’s too easy to fall into the festive trap of smiling through it, trying to convince everyone that we’re having a holly jolly old time.
Worrying about money or the fear of not having enough to see you through the festivities is a huge stress for so many people.
Making sure that you’ve that you’ve got the right gift for everyone so that no one is left wanting for anything.
God forbid Sharon doesn’t like the scarf you got her for work’s secret Santa.
Once you’ve got everyone’s presents sorted you then need to make sure you have enough to pay for all the usual monthly things like food and maintenance bills.
What if the car or the boiler breaks down? Do you have enough money left spare in case there’s an emergency?
How are you going to explain to the wee lad that Santa did his best to get him just one of the things he asked for, when other kids in his class got everything they asked for and more?
Some people leave one Christmas already worrying about how they’ll afford the next one.
That’s not how it should be.
When you can’t afford to celebrate the way you think you should be, everything is tainted by guilt and shame. The whole thing is overshadowed by the feeling of failure.
This cycle is made all the more toxic by social media.
Thanks to those insta-perfect table settings and the perfect family photos on Facebook, the struggle goes beyond convincing those around you that you’re having the happiest time. You have to prove it.
We live in a world of accessibility and instancy. We have access to almost anything, whenever we want it.
What’s worse is, we’ve been conditioned to think that we need to show everyone how well everything is going.
Seriously though, we spend so much time convincing everyone that we’re having the best time, that we forget to have it!
Another big struggle for people at Christmas is loneliness and grief.
Over 200,000 older people will spend Christmas alone. Doesn’t that just break your heart?
Some of them won’t even receive a card.
It’s not just old people. Christmas can be a reminder of what you’ve lost, whether it be a person, a relationship, a job, anything.
Some people spend their day missing what they once had, keeping to themselves so as not to burden those around them.
Every year, families lose people and have to endure their first Christmas without them.
It’s also important to remember that not all families live in harmony.
Relationships can be complicated at the best of times. Too often, Christmas is a reminder of what we’ve NOT got rather than what we HAVE.
It can bring up a lot of family tension. Personalities clash, boundaries are crossed and patience are tested.
Sometimes there’s no obvious reason or source of stress or worry, it’s simply there. That’s ok too.
Shops and roads are busier, the same songs are constantly on repeat, children are excited, schools are on holiday, you’re never finished shopping, chocolate is acceptable at any time of the day and the nervous energy is palpable.
We can’t control any of it and that itself takes a toll.
However, there are ways that you can check in with yourself.
For those who don’t often deal with high anxiety levels, some of these suggestions might sound obvious or ridiculous, but you’ll be surprised how far removed we become when we’re in stress mode.
I told you it was simple. When we’re in fight or flight mode, our breathing becomes irregular and this can have a series of knock on effects.
In moments when you feel like you can’t keep up with yourself or like you’re losing all control; stop. Stop and breathe.
Breathe proper deep belly breaths. In through your nose till your stomach is full, and slowly let it out through your mouth. Focus on that breath at every stage and repeat however many times you need to.
There are various breathing techniques that can work, so if you’d like to experiment with different ones, I’ve left a link HERE to a useful article. [https://www.healthline.com/health/breathing-exercise#belly-breathing]
Journaling can be a great way of refocusing and gaining perspective.
Studies have shown that physically writing things down, engages part of the brain associated with rational and logical thinking. In short, it helps to counteract the fight or flight response our bodies go into when we panic.
I find that journaling works best during the morning or evening.
The idea of morning pages is that you purge all your thoughts before they’re able to take form.
Dealing with things before they affect your day is a lovely thought, but not always realistic if you’re tight for time.
I’d recommend setting aside 5 to 10 minutes in the morning to do it so that you’re not rushing it.
Journaling at night can also be a nice, reflective way to end your day.
Rather than going to bed and worrying about the presents you still haven’t wrapped or the cards you forgot to send, write down the things that you’re grateful for. It can be as simple as you like.
If you keep it up, you’ll notice you feel calmer and catastrophise less.
Lists are my answer to almost everything.
Need to do a big shop? Make a list. Have hundreds of things you need to get done this weekend? Make a list. Lost track of the family members you’ve still to have your Christmas catch up with? List them.
If you’re at the point where you can’t see the wood from the trees, lists can really make a difference.
When you’re trying your best to keep all the plates spinning, you can stress yourself out without even realising.
Your judgement is clouded and eventually, you can’t make decisions about anything.
I like to think of stress as a tree.
Trees have roots. Roots are the foundation of the tree. It’s where is comes from.
What are the roots of your stress? The main things holding it up? Presents? Christmas dinner? Decorations?
Once you’ve identified the roots, you can tackle the branches. The specifics. What is is about the dinner that’s causing the stress? The table setting? Seating plan? The food? Etc.
Metaphor simplified = if you list your thoughts into sections and subsections, you’ll be able to make sense of your thoughts with a clearer idea of how to move forward.
This goes hand in hand with the listing.
At a time where anything and everything goes, consider what is actually important.
Is it imperative that the gift tags match the wrapping paper? No.
It’s all too easy to get bogged down by the festive pressure of giving your all to everything.
Unfortunately none of us are superhuman. Giving your all to everything is exhausting.
So, before you add yet another thing to your list of things, rank it.
Literally go through your list from your stress tree and filter it by most to least important.
That way, you can channel your efforts into affecting change that’s actually going to make a difference. Otherwise you’ll waste your energy fretting about the small stuff.
It’s tricky but it’s worth it.
Easier said than done, I know, but we all need to take our own advice.
We go above and beyond at this time of year, but we can only do so much. Nobody can run on empty, we all need time to refill.
Pick something you enjoy. Be it reading a book, having a bubble bath, lighting your favourite candle, or finishing the day with a gin and tonic.
Maybe even finish the day sipping a G&T, whilst reading said book as you enjoy your candle lit bubble bath? Go crazy.
Basically, make time for yourself.
Spend that time doing something that helps you unwind. Even if it’s only for 5 minutes. That time is vital in making sure you don’t burn the candle at both ends.
This Christmas I encourage you to phone a friend. Or better yet, VISIT them if you can. Let them know they’re not alone. Talk honestly with them.
It’s the season of comfort and joy. So, if you’ve got the joy, use it to comfort someone. Even if that someone is you.
I’ve put together a list of numbers that might be useful during the festive period. Please share and take note of them as you never know when someone might need them:
Samaritans: 116 123
Breathing Space: 0800 838 587
NHS 24: 111
Young Minds Crisis Messenger (24hour text messaging service): Text ‘ YM ‘ to 85258
Cruse: 0808 808 1677
MIND: 0300 123 3393
Childline: 0800 111