by Abby Hattersley

Tis the season to… accept that we can’t control our mental health and put no pressure on ourselves to be jolly…

Christmas is billed as a time of celebration. Every year we are beseeched with endless adverts, films, and TV specials desperately trying to push the narrative of the perfect nuclear family Christmas, where everybody is happy and nothing ever goes wrong. However, the reality can be a bit different. For many people Christmas is the most difficult time of the year and with a constant bombardment of advertising suggesting the opposite, many people end up feeling isolated. A survey from YouGov found that a quarter of people think that Christmas makes their mental health worse and did you know that requests for therapy TRIPLE in January.

Whether it’s the extra financial pressures created by Christmas, the daunting prospect of seeing difficult family members or an uncomfortable feeling that you just can’t muster the joy everybody else seems to feel, there can be a number of triggers for mental health problems over the festive season. That’s why we at Printed by Us have decided to make this year’s Christmas blog more of a survival guide for people that do find Christmas a really difficult time. It’s a cliché but just know, you’re not alone. 

Dealing with Depression at Christmas

One particular struggle which can affect people over the winter season is a type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). According to BUPA, SAD can affect up to three in one hundred people in the UK at some point in their lives. It’s caused by a lack of exposure to sunlight and presents as low energy levels, lethargy, anxiety and little interest in typically joyous activities. Depression can present in similar ways and is also very prevalent over the holidays. According to Mind, 1 in 6 people report that they’re feeling anxious or depressed every week in the UK and with the added stress and pressure Christmas brings, the volume of these reports increases drastically. 

But there are things you can do to help alleviate the symptoms…

One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to try and maintain all the good habits you’ve built up over the year to keep your mind healthy. If you take medications, keep up with them. If certain meditations or exercises help you, then make them a priority. And if you don’t feel as though you have any helpful routines then you could try to start one. Often the Christmas period is marked by a lack of routine. Personally I have always struggled particularly with the purposelessness which accompanies the period between Christmas and New Year. I understand the urge to stay inside during the cold winter months, wrapped in a blanket and eating junk food. But getting dressed and going outside for some fresh air will make you feel much better in the long run.  Exposing yourself to white light and vitamin D is a great mood lifter and fresh air allows your lungs to work at full capacity, allowing you to breathe deeper and calmer breaths. Its hard to imagine but just getting out of bed and going for a walk can really make the world of difference to your mental health. Plus, top tip! Listening to music whilst walking always manages to turn my mood around. 

However, if your thoughts take a dark turn and you are considering hurting yourself or others, please contact a mental health charity. I’ve attached numbers at the bottom of people you can call. 

Living with Anxiety at Christmas

Anxiety is a life-altering condition which affects up to 1 in 4 Brits in the UK. Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life, but for people living with anxiety disorders intense and persistent panic is a part of their day-to-day life.  And Christmas only exacerbates these symptoms. Whether it’s the bright lights, loud music or the fact that every shop becomes a crowded nightmare, the holiday season can be very overwhelming for a person living with an anxiety condition. On top of that, people living with a social anxiety disorder may feel pressured to attend the various social engagements that Christmas brings, be it family gatherings, office parties, catching up with old friends, the list goes on. And all these things inevitably lead only to increased feelings of anxiety. 

What’s important to remember in these situations is that Christmas is meant to be a time of relaxation for everyone, and that includes you. Despite what anyone says, it’s okay to remove yourself from a situation if you feel overwhelmed. If you are going to a social engagement, maybe try and have a plan in place for if your anxiety does rear its head. Confide in a close friend who can explain if you need to leave suddenly, or alternatively try and seek out a safe space you can go to for a breather. There’s nothing wrong with having breaks. Social interaction can be exhausting, especially when dealing with anxiety, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you need to take a moment to gather yourself. And pay no attention to the comments of older family members, who aren’t educated on the difficulties an anxiety condition brings. The only person who knows how you feel is yourself, so don’t let anyone try to make light of your struggles. 

Many people suffering from anxiety and depression can turn to alcohol or other substances as a means of coping over the holidays but drinking too much and the following hangover will only make you feel worse. It can be easy to fall back into old addictions at Christmas, and it seems to be an accepted thing that everyone drinks a little too much over the festive season. But try to remember all the progress you’ve made over the year and remind yourself of your limits. It could be helpful to channel your restless energy into more productive coping mechanisms, start jogging again, read a book, paint a picture (it doesn’t have to be good). And if you do decide to drink, stay safe and hydrated. 

Living with anxiety is more difficult than most people realise, and if it does start to affect your life please consider contacting your GP and getting help. I’ve regularly reflected on the paradox that in order to get help for anxiety you have to go through the anxiety-inducing process of ringing someone, but I promise you it’s worth the stress. No one should have to deal with this condition alone. 

Feeling Stressed at Christmas

There’s no doubt about it; Christmas is an immensely stressful time. Buying the presents, putting up the decorations, entertaining the kids, it never ends. For the majority of people, Christmas is meant to be a break, some time off from the toils of a full-time job. However, it never seems to go that way. All of the month of December is spent preparing and then the big day itself is always a whirlwind of cooking, cleaning and entertaining. Often the sigh of relief comes with returning to work as opposed to finishing for Christmas. And for people who suffer from chronic stress, the whole season can be exhausting. 

There’s also added financial pressures which come with the season of ‘joy’. For everyone in the world, its been a tough few years and many people are feeling the financial impacts of three lockdowns. However, the consumerist culture we live in puts pressure on everyone to buy expensive gifts for their loved ones, regardless of socioeconomic position. This leads to many people, especially parents, feeling guilty when they can’t afford the gifts their family wants.  And social media only exacerbates the situation as we are bombarded with images of the ‘perfect’ family Christmas, which in reality does not exist. 

One of the main things you can do to help with the stress of Christmas is not put pressure on yourself to make everything perfect. Real life is nothing like the adverts. In real life there’s mess and  that’s okay, having high expectations only puts pressure on you and the people around you, so try not to get hung up on the little things. So the carrots got burnt and that parcel you ordered weeks ago hasn’t arrived, does it really matter in the long run? The only person who cares about your mistakes is you.

Dealing with difficult family

Claustrophobic family gatherings can be one of the main reasons why people find the holiday season  tough. According to a survey done by Relate, 68 per cent of us are expected to quarrel over Christmas, with 39 per cent of people citing Christmas Day itself as the most likely day to have a family dispute. And things are particularly difficult this year with the rising threat of a new lock down. Truthfully no one really knows what the best thing to do is at the moment and the added stress which accompanies seeing vulnerable family members will only add to rising tensions.

So what can you do to make things easier?

If Covid is looming large in your mind and causing you anxiety then don’t pressure your self into seeing people. This virus is a very real and dangerous threat, as we have all seen over the last two years and it is completely okay to take any precautions which will ease your mind. However, remember that communication is key. Talk to your family and explain your decision. They may not be fully on board but at least you’ll know that you’ve explained your feelings and can leave them to make their own peace. 

If you do decide to visit family, try to stick to with the members whose company you actually enjoy and if you do wind up trapped in a conversation with a difficult family member then there’s nothing wrong with excusing yourself for a breather. Alternatively, silence is and always has been the best response to a bully, and a family bully is no different. If your grandma is shaking her head at your career decisions and your auntie keeps commenting on your weight, try to remind yourself that you only have to see them once a year and remain calm. I don’t mean to advise you not to have a back bone, but often a response will only lead to an argument that you’ll be blamed for. Just remember that you’re the bigger person here and don’t let them get to you. Family can be a tricky and complex thing to navigate, so don’t pressure yourself into doing anything you don’t want to do. There’s nothing wrong with putting yourself first. 

Loneliness at Christmas

Christmas is marketed as a time to spend with people, a time to see family and friends and rebuild connections with those you don’t see the rest of the year. This can make those spending the holidays alone feel isolated and lonely. Each year almost a million older people spend Christmas Day alone and many younger people too will find themselves without a place to go at Christmas. Even those surrounded by people can still feel lonely. In fact, according to a survey done by the Priory Group 53% of men feel lonely at Christmas – even though they are around other people. For those who are bereaved, it can be a particularly hard time. With images of happy families only serving as a reminder of the loss. 

When feeling lonely at Christmas, one of the best things you can do to help yourself is to distract yourself. Volunteering can be one of the best ways to connect with other people, and many people use the time they get off over the holidays to volunteer at places like homeless shelters or Care Homes. It can be really beneficial to your mental health being around other people and can bring with it a sense of accomplishment at being able to help out your community. If you don’t feel up to volunteering, you could always maintain an exercise regime over the holidays, ParkRun actually have a lot of 5k runs organised for Christmas day which could be a fun and distracting thing to do on the day itself. You could also reach out to friends you don’t get a chance to see much of and make time for a catch up. If you have recently suffered from a loss, then making plans to interact with friends might seem like the most difficult thing to do but isolating yourself is not the answer. If you feel able, try to put in some time with a close friend. You could always explain your situation beforehand and they will understand if you’re not your usual self. 

One of the loneliest feelings in the world is being sad whilst everyone around you is happy, and that’s what makes Christmas such a hard time for so many people. If the holiday season does start to bring you down, and none of these strategies are helping, then please contact a mental health charity. No one should have to suffer in silence. 

Here are some numbers you can call:

Mind: 0300 123 3393 (Mind offers information and support to people suffering from mental health issues)

Anxiety UK: 03444 775 774 (Anxiety UK are a charity offering support to those suffering from anxiety, stress and anxiety-based depression)

Relate: 0300 0030396 (Relate are a charity who specialise in relationship counselling, they help with any relationship, be it marriage, LGBT issues, divorce and parenting.)

Age UK: 0800 678 1602 (Age UK is a charity which focuses on helping older people, they offer advice, helping to enable independence and combat loneliness)

Samaritans: 116 123 (Samaritans are a charity which aims to provide emotional support to anyone in emotional distress, struggling to cope or at risk of suicide)