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“It’s the most wonderful time of the year”, according to the song, but for very many of us, Christmas is fraught with tension, expectations, even mental health difficulties – none of which we see in the snow-covered happy-family adverts and festive films.
How should all of us ensure that we can cope with whatever the Christmas and New Year holiday season throws at us? Here’s a run-down of the typical festive flashpoints, and how we might manage this better:
Managing Expectations around a first non-lockdown Christmas
Many people find Christmas difficult because of the unspoken expectation that we should be full of happiness and joy, and spending time with a family we love. This can leave many people feeling isolated or ashamed that they don't experience the joy, or that they have a less-than-perfect relationship with family. For single people or anyone who has experienced loss, break-up, or bereavement, the sense of isolation can be magnified over the Christmas period.
This year, however, there is an added pressure of this being the first Christmas where we can socialise semi-normally, and be with friends and family. This brings can bring an expectation that Christmas should be extra special or perfect. Notice any pressure – from self or others – around “having the perfect Christmas”. Remind yourself that you will have as good a day as possible and that there is no such thing as perfect: things will go wrong, people won’t always be happy, but you can still have a great Christmas.
Trying to see Everyone
“We must get together before Christmas” is a phrase most of us dread. The December period brings an expectation that we should be able to see everyone. Limit yourself to a realistic number of pre-Christmas drinks and dinners. Remind yourself it’s perfectly possible to see people in January. Don’t be frightened to tell extended family members that it might not be possible to see them on the day itself. Schedule a Zoom call and see them over “Zoom drinks”, or embrace the post-Christmas get-together.
Over-spending on Presents
Buying presents is an integral part of Christmas. However, over-spending is at the top of most people’s Christmas worry list. Set a strict limit of who you are going to buy for, and what the maximum spend is. Agree in advance with neighbours and colleagues at work that you don’t need to buy presents for each other. Give a Christmas card or make a plan to have a drink in the New Year.
Over-Indulging on Food and Drink
This is a tricky one! A huge part of Christmas is the party food, the mulled wine, the mince pies, the sweet cocktails we probably don’t drink at any other time of year. There’s nothing wrong with indulging, but it makes sense to try and have a few days off alcohol or festive food, in the run-up to Christmas. Alcohol is a depressant. It interferes with our sleep and depletes the brain chemicals such as serotonin, which reduce depression and anxiety. A few abstinent days will really help you enjoy Christmas all the more.
Good Boundaries around Work
After three lockdowns and an extended period of working from home, it’s hard to create a healthy separation between work and home. During the Christmas period, it’s important to be clear which days are working days – even just checking emails or phoning in – and which days are non-working days. Set out clearly in work and home diaries which are the holiday dates and remind colleagues and co-workers that you won’t be available. Let your family know when you are working and reassure them that you will be finished to join the festivities. That’s not to say that you can’t socialise with your colleagues. After all, they’re friends, too! Hop on Tahora to connect with your team and create meaningful connections over the Christmas period.
Go for a Walk
The weather’s often cold and wet, or snowy, even. It’s dark by 3pm and very few of us have the motivation to exercise. Yet exercise can be one of the best stress relievers and certainly help offset the extra food and drink. If you’re finding the Christmas period hard to cope with, and your gym or exercise class might be shut or not happening, go for a walk. A brisk twenty-minute walk around the block will re-energise you and help your body naturally shed some of the stress of being in the house with all the pressures of Christmas.
Ask for Help
It’s perfectly normal to find Christmas difficult. It’s also not unusual to feel a little down at this time of year, with the expectations of Christmas and New Year, and the short winter days.
If you’re struggling with anxiety and depression, be mindful of the difficulties of this time of year. Seek professional help if you’re really struggling. The UKCP – United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy, or BACP – British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy – are the professional bodies for Psychotherapists and Counsellors, and can their websites can direct you to mental health professionals in your area.