We are long bombarded, in the lead up to Christmas, with media messages that the “Silly Season” is a time of joy, happiness, delicious food and social events where we enjoy the company of loved ones and many friends.
Well, this may be the case for some but, for others, it can be a time of intense loneliness; chaos and pressure due to all the obligatory activities (cooking, socialising, ‘perfect’ present buying etc) and the stress caused by family conflict/arguments or not meeting others’ expectations.
According to research Christmas is a time of year when many people experience a high degree depression, anxiety and sadness. According to US data (I couldn’t find specific data for Australia), there is a greater incidence of suicide and attempted suicide at Christmas time, and mental health professionals report a significant increase in patients complaining about depression. One North American survey reported that 45% of respondents dreaded the festive season.
In the Northern Hemisphere, it is believed that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) experienced by people enduring a cold, dark winter is partly to blame but it appears that many other factors are at play during the Christmas season:
• Depression and anger at the excessive commercialisation of Christmas and the overemphasis on gifts and attending/hosting endless ‘perfect’ social events.
• Depression caused by the trigger towards the end of the year and Christmas to engage in excessive self-reflection and rumination about the inadequacies of life in comparison with other people who seem to have more and do more.
• The realisation of ‘failed’ New Year resolutions, particularly if they are the same ‘failure’ repeated every year – to lose weight, change jobs, stop smoking, get fit etc.
• Anxiety caused by the pressure (both commercial and self-induced) to spend a lot of money on gifts and to incur increasing debt. Financial difficulties are heightened at Christmas/New Year and many charitable agencies and financial support agencies report an increase in requests for assistance in the New Year, (particularly when parents have to purchase school items, pay school fees etc.) due to overspending.
• Anxiety and stress caused by the expectations for social gatherings with family, friends and acquaintances with whom people would rather not spend time. For example, attending an event where there’s a relative or friend with whom you don’t get along can cause feelings of sadness, guilt, resentment or inner conflict about whether or how to communicate.
• This can also be a particularly difficult time for separated families who feel obligated to come together at Christmas. Stress and pressure can be felt keenly by the adult children of separated parents who feel obligated to attend social events hosted by both parents on Christmas Day. Married children could potentially have to visit each biological parent (possibly also with step-parent) plus in-laws.
• Depression from trying to please everyone (presents, events, outfits, conversation, partner etc.) as well as less time for self-care.
Women are at greater risk for depression than men and much of the Christmas preparation is done by women (planning, shopping, cooking, gift wrapping etc.) so women tend to carry the greater burden in preparing for family gatherings. They need to be even more mindful of the extra stresses at this time of year.
So, what can you do to manage the chaos of Christmastime?
1. Be aware of the symptoms of depression and anxiety and, if you feel that you can’t cope, see a mental health professional. Some of the symptoms of depression are: feelings of sadness, worthlessness or guilt, crying, loss of interest in usual activities, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, social withdrawal, and changes in sleep, weight, or appetite. Some of the symptoms of anxiety are: feelings of panic, fear and uneasiness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, dry mouth and inability to be still.
2. Set boundaries regarding the money spent on gifts and don’t spend what you can’t afford. Have you ever seen the ‘return queues’ at stores on Boxing Day? Vouchers can be a great idea if you are unsure of what to get someone. Many families embrace a Kris Kringle or Secret Santa arrangement where one person only buys a present for one other person. Some families also buy each other ‘gifts’ for charities such as World Vision rather than each other.
3. Set boundaries on the number of social events attended or the length of time spent at a particular social event.
4. Try not to leave shopping to the last minute – the last few shopping days before Christmas can be very stressful due to limited parking, crowds of people, enormous queues at checkouts and the pressure to buy something at the last minute.
5. Ask for help from your family and friends. You don’t have to be responsible for everything at a social gathering, particularly on Christmas Day.
6. Try not to allow perfectionism to wear you down. Remember it’s being together and goodwill that matters.
7. Make time to rest and rejuvenate even amongst the pressure of getting things done. Try to engage in your usual fitness activities and get enough sleep. Moderate your consumption of high calorie food – having to start the New Year with yet another resolution to lose weight can feel very defeating.
8. Drink alcohol in moderation. It may be tempting to drink too much during the festive period, but alcohol can contribute to stress, anxiety and depression. Alcohol may be a problem if you’re drinking to cope.
9. Avoid known triggers. If your family or friends have a history of disagreement over a certain issue (politics, sport, religion etc.) then don’t bring it up or change the subject if someone else does. Agree beforehand not to discuss certain topics.
10. Spend time alone to reflect and grieve, if necessary. Pushing down or avoiding feelings can lead to depression. It is best to let yourself acknowledge and allow your feelings. Then do something nice for yourself and socialise with others whose company you enjoy.
11. Reach out to others who may be lonely.
12. Volunteer to help others in need because this can be gratifying – i.e. serving food at a public Christmas lunch; wrapping and/or delivering charity gifts etc.
13. Focus on, and be grateful for, what you have in your life, rather than on what you don't have.
14. If you are religious, take part in church activities that focus on the bigger meaning of Christmas.
If holiday season stress is getting too much for you and you need support call beyondblue, 1300 22 4636, or lifeline, 13 11 14, to talk things through. If you or someone you know, is at risk of hurting themselves or someone else, call triple zero (000).
Understanding & Coping with the Christmas Blues; Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT
Beating Christmas stress and anxiety
Images by google; photos 1 & 8 are author’s owm
MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE AND HAVE A SAFE, HAPPY AND HEALTHY 2016