The festive season is synonymous with celebration. The common narrative has happy families coming together over meals, loved ones exchanging gifts, and a sense of unabashed joy at large, but this expectation can leave us feeling more isolated than ever as we compare ourselves to others or how we’re ‘supposed’ to feel. The constant messaging around cheer, generosity, and hope can wok in reverse and accentuate any grief, sadness or loneliness lurking below the surface.
“We know from research that people are more likely to feel sad at times when they most expect to be happy, or when they feel a social pressure to maintain high levels of happiness. Christmas is a time when feelings of joy and happiness are highly emphasised and this can set a benchmark that people feel they are failing to achieve,” Brock Bastian, a social psychologist whose research focuses on pain, happiness, and mortality, tells Really Well.
Experiencing these emotions at a time that is so overtly jovial can be confusing and challenging. Couple this with factors like increased financial pressure, family conflict, and work-related stress and you have a recipe for a decidedly very un-merry Christmas.
We pulled together some pointers to help navigate what can be a tricky time of year.
As the year comes to a close, it’s easy to become wrapped up in reflection, thinking about the last 12 months or memories of Christmases past. While there is nothing inherently wrong with taking a trip down memory lane, we need to ensure that this reflection doesn’t turn into rumination. Instead of getting caught up in a circular thoughts about how good things were or what could have been, could you instead take Christmas as a cue to cast away any thought patterns or internal monologues that no longer serve you?
If you’re already feeling low, it can be tempting to attempt to lift your spirits with alcohol. While drinking is inextricable to many Christmas and holiday occasions in Australia, try to do it in moderation. You already know this, but keep in mind that alcohol is a very strong mood depressant so will only make you feel worse in the long run.
“I think family is a common trigger for mental ill-health over Christmas. We usually have an image in our mind of what families should be like at Christmas—happy, engaged, together—but often this is not the case. We might not have family around us, or our families may not function like the images we have in our heads,” says Bastian. If your family is known to butt heads over a certain topic, avoid bringing it up or try to steer the conversation in a different direction. Assert your boundaries firmly but fairly. If your family members are starting to make you feel uncomfortable, you could cut the conversation off by saying something diplomatic like, “It is okay for you to disagree with me, but if you continue to push your point of view on me I’ll have to stop talking to you about this subject.”
It’s super important to stay healthy. Eating well, sticking to your usual exercise regime, and ensuring you get 7 to 9 hours of sleep are the foundations for coping with Christmas stress. During a time of social and family obligation, carving out time for yourself is key. Even if you’re staying with relatives and feeling boxed in, you could aim to do mindfulness each morning before everyone else is awake or take twenty minutes to read before bed. These small ‘me time’ moments can be essential.
Try to ignore the pressure to have a picture-perfect Christmas or to celebrate in a certain way. Locate what this particular time of year means to you and create your own traditions. “I think it is okay to accept that Christmas can be hard, and to remember that in fact it is a hard time for many people; you are not alone. Also, that it is okay to dislike Christmas, and that feeling depressed or anxious at this time of year does not mean you are failing in life, abnormal, or that your life is less valuable than others,” Bastian explains.
Opening up about the way you feel can help you to feel validated and understood at this time of year. You might even be surprised to learn that others are sharing a similar experience to you.
If this article raised any issues that are close to home for you, know that help is out there. You can contact Lifeline 24-hours a day on 13 11 14, or find out more information about depression and anxiety at Beyond Blue.
Photography and words by Really Well.