The smell of pine, the twinkle of fairy lights, carols drifting through the frosty air- Christmas can be a magical time of year. However, when you are feeling far from festive, it can feel a bit more like walking through a minefield than a winter wonderland. Whether you live with a mental illness or not, Christmas (or any other event with high social demands) can be incredibly stressful and overwhelming.
We’ve put together some little pieces of advice to help you deal with some of the season’s demands.
If you have any more tips to share, please share them in the comments below!
1. Pressure to be Merry
The pressure to be having a good time at Christmas can be overwhelming. We feel like we must constantly be in ‘happy, joyful mode’, plastering on a winning smile and taking every opportunity to get involved with the festivities. We feel like we must give the perfect presents, cook the most delicious meals, and just make everyone around us happy. It’s exhausting and anxiety-provoking trying to meet all these expectations and often self-imposed high standards.
First of all, we are never going to have this perfect, idyllic Christmas because it is just. Not. Real. There’s no such thing. All those photos of friends and family having a great time on social media are just the highlights of their day. People don’t tend to post about family arguments, or crying over burning the potatoes. Those perfect families on the Tesco advert? They are actors who met that morning. Life does not stop being a rollercoaster of emotions just because it’s Christmas.
If we begin to take the pressure off ourselves, take a step back from all these false displays of happiness, and just recognise what we are actually feeling, it becomes a lot easier to relax. Once we relax, we can start to feel more in the moment and begin enjoy ourselves for real. Our Christmas might not be perfect, but it’s ours.
2. Money Worries
Very much linked to this idea of having a ‘perfect’ Christmas is the idea that you need to throw money at it. It’s not just the presents, but there’s the food, the social events, travelling about; not to mention that paydays can sometimes change. But, as I said above, this is complete myth pedalled by companies to make us spend more.
Set yourself a strict budget for the season and try hard to stick to it. When it comes to gifts, it really is the thought that counts. Homemade biscuits or a simple photo in a frame will mean so much more to people than an expensive gift which cause the giver stress and anxiety! If you can’t afford to go out and do things, you don’t have to. Why not invite a couple of friends around instead and have a little cheap get together with a film? Everyone will be feeling the pinch and they will probably be grateful for an excuse to save some pennies (and get out of the cold!).
If you are really struggling, please do not be too proud to ask for help from friends, family, or use services such as your local food bank.
3. Lack of Routine
Over the festive period, daily routines go out the window. Out goes work or school and in comes random family visits, social events, shopping, making sure we are in to catch Harry Potter on TV (yes I have them on DVD but it feels special to have set wee/tea breaks). This can leave us feeling unsettled, disorganised and generally overwhelmed. Enforcing your own routine, as far as possible, can help. Try to go to bed and get up at a similar time everyday, stay active by setting yourself little achievable goals every day, maintain your daily rituals such as having toast for breakfast or your daily shower.
And don’t forget, it is just one day, or one week. It will end and order will be restored!
4. Social Overwhelm
One of my favourite things about Christmas is having time to hang out with my family and friends, but all this intense socialising can be hard work. It can feel like people expect you to be a glittering ball of social aptitude and good cheer, when all you want to do is run and hide under your duvet.
Despite popular beliefs, you don’t have to do everything. Of course, there will be things you are obliged to do, but set yourself some boundaries and ground rules. Spend more time around people that make you feel good, limit your time with those that don’t. Don’t do things for others at the expense of your own wellbeing and mental health. Leave when you want to.
And don’t forget to take some time out for yourself. Go for a walk or hide in the bathroom for five minutes, do some deep breathing exercises, listen to some music, text an understanding friend. You will feel more up for seeing people and being social if you have had time to recharge your batteries.
5. Food & Drink
Overindulging at Christmas is often a given part of the holiday. Whilst there is nothing wrong with having an extra slice of cake or a few drinks, what we put into our bodies can have a significant impact on how we feel. For example, things that make our blood sugar to rise and fall rapidly such as sweets, fizzy drinks or alcohol can make us feel tired, irritable and aggravate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Or sometimes, we might lose our appetite completely.
Ultimately, it’s about remembering that you are in control of what you put into your body. There’s nothing wrong with bringing your own food to places- just say it’s for medical reasons or make enough for other people can share it too! If you do want to join in with what everyone else is eating, you could try using a smaller plate to make sure you don’t over face yourself (you can always get seconds!).
When it comes to alcohol, where’s often a lot of pressure to drink more than you are comfortable with. This is usually from well-meaning people who just want you to have a good time, which makes it quite a tricky issue to navigate. Of course, if you are on certain medication, you might not be able to drink at all. It’s perfectly okay to not fancy a drink, or only want to drink a bit. There’s plenty of yummy non-alcoholic drinks out there (virgin mojitos are the best!). If you don’t want to bring attention to it, pop your chosen beverage in a fancy glass (umbrella optional), or you could divert from the issue (“I am a bit fed up with Prosecco to be honest, would it be okay of I have a cup of tea?”)
6. Dealing with the Family
Despite what TV adverts would have you believe (and every Christmas film/ Christmas TV Show/ family newsletter) sometimes family time at Christmas can cause enormous amounts of stress. You love them, of course, but that doesn’t mean they can’t rub you up the wrong way or be extremely difficult to deal with.
Whatever your family situation, it’s important to remember that you can’t make everyone happy. If you try, you will exhaust yourself or make yourself unhappy which is unhelpful. Whilst there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and you can’t change the behaviours of others, you can change the way you view things.
Where possible, focus on the positive things about people. Look for their little quirks or try and strike up a conversation about any shared interests (even if it’s just other family members or friends!). Part of this may also involve adjusting your expectations too. Behaviours you know annoy or upset you are very unlikely to have changed, so arm yourself with the knowledge they will more than likely come up again. Try to lower your expectations, think about how you would deal with any difficult situations or topics of conversations should they arise, and be prepared to let some little niggles go. This will avoid any disappointment or clashes you aren’t ready for and may react badly to.
Also, don’t let the stress and forced-fun of the season distract you from having a meaningful relationship with people who are close to you. As tempting as it can be, arguing about mundane pointless things like who needs to take out the recycling or find the missing Monopoly piece is just not worth it. Take a deep breath, count to ten.
The final thing to remember is, as cliché as it sounds, just be yourself. You know who you are outside of your family. Keep a sight on that and avoid any sly remarks or petty arguments that take you away from you.
Sometimes we may not have family or friends around us at Christmas. Without the social routines of work, school or day-to-day errands, things can start to feel incredibly lonely.
If you don’t feel like being around people, you can take advantage of the quieter roads and parks and spend some time outdoors. Or you can immerse yourself in a book or a film, or get some of those niggly household tasks done. However, if you do want to be around people, there lots of opportunities to do so. Many charities and organisations look for volunteers over Christmas, especially homeless or displaced people centres, and some community centres even host a big meal where people can come along and celebrate together.
And, whilst it can be a pain some of the time, social media can help us to connect with people also going through the same struggles. Every year, comedian and all-round good egg Sarah Millican creates a little Twitter community using the hashtag #joinin to connect all those people who could do with some company. If you have never seen this before, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s a truly beautiful thing.
Also, do not forget that the Samaritans are available 24/7, 365 days a year- just call 116 123 (UK & ROI)
Big family events such as Christmas can often intensify the loss of a loved one. The first thing I would say is: you are allowed to feel sad, whether it’s been a week, a year or decades. It is totally valid; do not feel like you are being silly.
Whilst I wish I had some concrete advice for deal this one, grief is a dick and there’s no ‘best way’ to deal with it. For some, creating little rituals or maintaining traditions that your lost one was a part of can be incredibly comforting and a positive act of remembrance. For example, my auntie usually worked Christmas Day so on Boxing Day, we used to get together with my cousin and celebrate. Since she died, we have kept this up. The first year was tough, and there’s still often some blurry-eyed moments, but it’s my favourite day of the season because it feels like she is there raising a glass with us!
However, grief is an incredibly personal experience. Everyone deals with it differently and you need to give yourself time to work out what works for you. Talking about your loved one, lighting candles, looking at old photos, or ignoring it completely is all okay. Remember that other family members or friends may also be feeling sad too. If you can, try and support their grief and coping mechanisms too.
We hope you have a lovely and unstressful time, but if you do, remember help is always available
Love Jodie and the ECBC Team xxx