Christmas can be a difficult time for all of us, let alone those who are finding themselves having difficulties managing their mental health, especially following nine months of pandemic-related confinement. On a typical year, Christmas presents us with a possible range of emotional challenges, some that might be familiar to us all include: the pressure to buy just the right gifts (gifts that won’t be redistributed next year or secretly returned for their sale value!); to wrap them in the right way; to deliver them to the right people at the right time; to prepare the perfect Christmas dinner; to manage the conflicting needs of different families and; to cope with the often significant financial cost of Christmas (to name just a few).
For those struggling with their mental health, it’s quite likely that layers of further complexity present themselves at this time of year. They may be faced with anniversary reactions reminding them of traumas of the past such as Christmases of devastation and despair, of people that may have been loved and lost or who may have deeply hurt them. For some, reminiscing on happier times from the past can leave them feeling lonely, lost and isolated. We psychologists regularly hear of families who have been torn apart, devastated or traumatised and Christmas has acted as a time of rumination over these painful memories. In many cases, making a choice between the worry of being alone on Christmas day, versus the fear of being surrounded by family and friends is confusing and pressurising. And we shouldn’t forget the anticipatory anxiety a new year presents; while many of us approach this as a new opportunity, the future is uncertain and unpredictable so frightening for many of us. If your experience of the past is tainted with challenging circumstances, the future may naturally look just as bleak.
The rule of three households may present some of us with relief that we will see at least some of those who are held most dear to us; it might also solve the dilemma of cooking for the masses. However, for those who are finding the constraints of lockdown tough, they may be forced to choose between family members and friends they love. They may be restricted from seeing vulnerable relatives, or mourning the loss of a loved one who has passed away from covid this year. For others, managing the inertia of further home-based activity, or facing the anxiety of escaping such an insular lifestyle may be consolidated by the disappointment of a last minute discovery of being in tier four or that self-isolation on Christmas day may be necessary. Even arranging to drop off gifts at your best friends’ house can no longer be teamed with a quick mince pie and a cuppa so instead a hugless encounter at the doorstep while trying to shake off the cold is perhaps only slightly more appealing than the lengthy queue at the Post Office.
In considering these as just some of the challenges that adopting a festive spirit at this difficult time presents, it makes good sense that those of us working in the helping professions have seen a dramatic rise in mental health referrals during the covid pandemic. This pandemic has meant that people who haven’t struggled with mental health difficulties before, may now be contending with complex stresses and conflicting feelings of anxiety and plummeting low mood which is at risk of further exacerbation over the Christmas period
So how can we cope with the significant ups and downs that this unique Christmas period presents? Many of us have chosen to engage with the skill of ‘opposite action’ which is the notion of applying yourself fully to precisely the opposite of what one’s mind might otherwise urge them to do. For example, they might recognise the urge to have a low-key Christmas, to not bother with the christmas decorations, to prepare the bean-and-cheese toasty and have an early night with a good film and counter this with hanging thousands of fairy lights, buying the eight-foot tree and ordering all the trimmings. Others have ‘radically accepted’ the need to pause and appreciate what they don’t have, to make positive comparisons with those less fortunate than themselves, and instead pay homage to the smallest things they are grateful for. Certainly, this latter skill can be the hardest thing to do and risks being unhelpful if it wasn’t for the importance of teaming this with validation of the sadness, grief and complexity that losing the precious opportunity that the Christmas season gives us.
The most helpful advice the team at Serendipity Psychology can lend you is to sit back and review what your core values are and live these out through the festive period; consider what Christmas really means for you. Are your values best reflected in the words ‘excitement’, ‘adventure’, ‘fun’ and ‘friendliness’, or would they be better represented by the words ‘contribution’, ‘caring’, ‘kindness’ and ‘supportiveness’? By recognising your core values you can make better informed decisions about how to be loyal to them and live them out in practice this Christmas. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to establish creative (and tier-compliant) ways to actualise your values. If adventure is of paramount importance, can you book onto an outdoor rock climbing experience, or find a new trekking route you’ve not tried before? If contributing gives you a lift, can you donate a dinner to Crisis, or bake the elderly neighbour next door some mince pies? If caring for others is not a core value for you, don’t apologise for it; doing this will simply leave your own needs unmet and leave you feeling dissatisfied and despondent, particularly at this challenging time. You know what we say? “You can’t give from an empty cup”… and there hasn’t been a truer time than this to demonstrate this analogy so actively. Look after your mental health, do for you what works for you.
Most importantly, find ways to meaningfully connect with others. This doesn’t have to be through a pressurised, three-course Christmas dinner but can also be through simpler interventions such as a Facetime call on boxing day, or a Christmas card to the neighbour. Reaching out has never been harder for many of us, afterall we get better at what we practice most. If you’ve practiced living in an insular bubble for the past nine months, you will be well-versed in doing this automatically. Challenging yourself to reach out to a trusted person might require a real injection of energy but it should reap benefits. Be authentic and let them know how you’re feeling.
If you feel unable to cope and may be entering into crisis and are in need of further support, some of the most helpful contact numbers are:
Samaritans 116 123
Saneline 0300 304 7000
Childline 0800 1111
Remember also that at any time you feel unsafe, go to A&E, call your GP or call 999 or 111.