If ever there was a polarising time of year, it’s now. The festive season can be lovely, exciting, heartwarming, and fun. It can also be incredibly stressful, lonely, claustrophobic, and difficult to cope with. This year, emotions might be running higher (or lower) than previous years and the pressure to plaster a smile on our faces is one that weighs heavy; we don’t want to ruin the fun for anyone, but we’re not always feeling the in festive spirit either. Depression is a complex illness and when we add the pressure and the expectations we feel to that, it can feel intolerable.
Seeing Family Over The Festive Season
Some of us have families we’re close to. We look forward to seeing them every year. Unfortunately, this year we might not be able to have the big, noisy, slightly chaotic Christmas that we’re used to, we might have to scale it down. Some of us might prefer a quieter Christmas. We can begin to feel claustrophobic with so many people and so much noise around. We struggle to find any peace and quiet. For others, the thought of spending Christmas away from our loved ones after such a tricky year can leave us grappling with feelings of upset and hopelessness.
Our loved ones might also be unwell, and we might find that we need to support them. We could need some extra support from our families, but it might be difficult to communicate how we’d like them to support us. Although being with our loved ones when they’re unwell is hard, being apart from them can be incredibly difficult, too.
Some of us have families who aren’t so close. We feel like the odd one out. Tensions can arise. Arguments can happen. It can be incredibly stressful to try and manage it all and we could feel like using not-so-helpful coping mechanisms.
Our families might have drifted so far that they don’t even meet up anymore. We see pictures of our friends pulling faces with siblings, hugging parents, and introducing grandparents to the latest Snapchat filters. It hurts.
We may have experienced divorce and find that we’re sharing the time we have with our children. It could be our first Christmas as a single parent. We may have children who we’re not in contact with. It can bring up all sorts of difficult emotions.
Whatever our situation, we need time to recharge. The noise, the people, the isolation and loneliness can all fill us up until it feels hard to breathe.
Taking some time out can help. Even if we’re not in our own house, we can ask our hosts if we can take five minutes out in an office or bedroom. Or even escape to a bathroom. There are no limits on how many time-outs we can have. We can spend those five minutes having some peace and quiet, slowing down our breathing, and generally recharging our batteries.
Keeping Everyone Happy
We can run ourselves ragged trying to keep everyone happy. It’s exhausting. This year it might be extra-complicated, because if we’re only allowed to see a certain number of people then there could be difficult choices to make.
We are never, ever going to be able to have the ‘perfect’ festive season. We won’t be able to cater for every single individual we encounter. It’s not possible, and we will exhaust ourselves trying. Try and let others help, and delegate where possible.
We also need to try not to do things for others at the expense of ourselves and our health – we’re allowed to say no and enforce our boundaries. Nobody pour from an empty cup. We need to look after ourselves as much as possible.
Festive Socialising – The 2020 Version
This year, socialising is likely to look a little different to the huge Christmas parties that we’re used to. A lot of people are moving their social meetups online. We might find that this works better for us, or we might absolutely hate it and never want to hear the ‘Z word’ ever again.
Our illness may have made our world quite small. Lockdown may have exacerbated this because it’s given us the perfect excuse to stay inside and isolate ourselves from everyone we know. We may not have seen people in a while. Our physical appearance might have changed. We may have got used to a very basic routine as we try to feel better. If we’re someone who lives alone or doesn’t see our housemates much, then we might have gone for days at a time without speaking to another person. This can mean that we lose confidence in our ability to socialise and talk to others. It can take a little bit of practice to get our voice going again. A big social event, even online, can be overwhelming, exhausting, and incredibly anxiety-provoking.
It’s okay to do what we need to do to cope with social occasions. If we’re socialising online, we could have fiddle toys around us (they don’t have to be viewable from camera if we don’t want them to be), be in our super-comfy comfies, and have our slippers on. It’s okay to nip in the bathroom or turn off our camera for five minutes.
When we socialise online, we’re often harder on ourselves if it exhausts us. We think that because we’ve been sat on the sofa the whole time, it shouldn’t leave us feeling so tired and we should pull ourselves together. But even if our socialising is online, we’re still talking to different people. We’re still having to concentrate on conversations. It’s still exhausting and we still deserve to slot in some rest time around it.
Socialising can be hard work. It often includes people, noise, and the weight of societal expectations. People ask us about our lives, and we feel we have nothing of interest to say because our lives are consumed by depression.
Holding a glass of something (we don’t have to drink it), can be useful because we can hide behind it. We could wear something with pockets and put a fiddly toy in our pockets if that helps us to feel safer.
When chatting, we can deflect questions we don’t want to answer. If we struggle to listen, we can nod and ‘mmm’. If we’re worried about people asking what we’ve been up to lately, we could talk about our family members. Or about something we’ve been watching on TV.
It’s up to us to choose how we engage with social events. We don’t have to drink or eat anything we don’t want to (including alcohol) and we can leave when we need to.
If we feel unable to take part, it’s okay to say we’re unable to go (yes, even if it’s online – we don’t even have to come up with an excuse!). If we’re feeling up to it, we could invite one or two friends over if it’s an option. That way we still see people, but it’s not so overwhelming. We can even whack a film on if we don’t feel like talking. If we’re chatting online then we can still watch it together by putting it on at the same time. If we’re worried about watching films or TV in case one of our triggers pops up, we can check them out beforehand to make sure that they’re okay to watch.
With Christmas having the potential to be a high-anxiety time for many reasons, including socialising, it could be helpful to ask our loved ones to support us with managing our anxiety.
Fear Of Missing Out
Seeing happy, festive, friends, and families on social media can be hard. Depression can cause us to isolate ourselves. We might feel frustrated that our illness stops us from seeing people or doing things. It can be lonely and worsen our mood.
We worry about missing out on things, but we don’t feel able to do the things we worry about missing out on. So, we get stuck.
Limiting our time on social media might be helpful. Sticking on our favourite film and hugging our pets, whilst sitting in a blanket fort can be much more fun than endless scrolling. We could try upping our self-care game, too.
Remember, social media isn’t the truth, it’s the good bits of people’s lives. People don’t tend to post the argument they had that morning, or the crying over feeling overwhelmed and anxious. They only post the photos that they liked, which are oftentimes edited. The images we see are never the full picture.
Some of us might not have a family. We might not have friends who we are able to join over the festive season. It can be incredibly lonely, and hard to cope with.
We could spend difficult days doing our favourite things. The roads are likely to be clear on significant days, so we can visit our favourite places, or go for a nice long walk. If we don’t feel like we want to go out, we could have a movie marathon, build a mammoth duvet fort, and snuggle up with a book.
Significant days are so difficult, so we need to try and be kind to ourselves.
If we want to be around people, we could offer to volunteer at somewhere like our local homeless shelter. Or we could find out about the events in our community and head down there. The Jo Cox Foundation supports communities to run a ‘Great Get Together‘ during the month of December so it’s always worth checking to see if there is an event planned in our area (or we could plan one of our own!). Most communities will have some form of meal, whether it be at a church or a community centre. Supermarket boards often have these events advertised on them. We could also find a local group on Facebook and ask what events people know of. We never have to suffer on alone if we want to be around people.
When we really don’t feel up to any of those things, we can tap into social media to connect with others who are struggling in the same way. The comedian Sarah Millican runs #JoinIn on Twitter each Christmas. Anyone who wants to can hop onto Twitter, write a status including the hashtag #JoinIn, and interact with others who are also using the hashtag.
Busy, Busy, Busy
The festive season can be busy. Both the build-up and the big, festive days, can be stressful. Our to-do list can feel overwhelming. We have limited energy. We’re often expected to be in six places at once.
Supermarkets are packed. If we struggle with anxiety in public places then the increase of people on the streets can cause it to sky-rocket. Roads are jammed. There’s stress in the air and a significant lack of downtime.
We don’t have to buy into this stress. We don’t have to create the ‘perfect’ anything. If we want to do beans on toast instead of a huge dinner… who cares? If we’re that bothered, we can do a big roast another, calmer, day instead.
We can create our own downtime. Stick a film on to occupy the little people in our life for a few hours. Take some time out. Have a nap. Self-soothe. Go for a walk around the block. Jump in our car, put on our favourite CD, and go for a short drive. Take a look at some self-care worksheets. Whatever we find the most helpful. We don’t have to be forever busy. We’re allowed time out. We can do whatever we need to do to keep our mood stable, and our stress levels down.
Lack Of Routine
Something that often helps us to manage our mental health is routine. We settle into a routine we know so that we don’t have to think about remembering things or getting things done.
Over the festive period, our routine often goes out of the window. It can leave us feeling unsettled and uncertain. There’s no school, we could be on annual leave from work. There are often parties to attend, people to see, shopping to do… the list can stack up and become overwhelming.
Losing aspects of our routine does not mean that we have to be routine-less. We could develop a ‘festive routine’. It could include things like going to bed and waking up at the same time each day (this might be different from our ‘work week’ sleep times). Eating our meals within the same sort of time range each day (eg. having lunch between noon and two every day). Or showering at the same time each day.
Depression can affect our relationship with food. Sometimes it can cause us to lose our appetite completely. Alternatively, we could find ourselves using food as a coping mechanism. Some medications can also affect our relationship with food.
Having so much food around can be hard. If we have no appetite, we could find it stressful (especially when well-meaning relatives comment on our diet!). If we’re prone to comfort eating; the amount of food around could cause us to eat more than normal. We often find ourselves picking at things throughout the day, or binge eating.
We don’t have to eat the same as everyone else. If we can’t manage it, there’s no harm in bringing our own meal that we can heat up. We don’t have to have festive food. If anyone asks we can say it’s ‘for medical reasons’. If we do feel up to joining in with what everyone else is eating, we could ask a close friend or family member to help us manage quantities. We could also try and write a bit of a meal plan in advance and stick to that.
There is often lots of alcohol around during the festive season and with that, comes peer pressure to drink more than we feel comfortable with. If we’re taking medication, we’ll need to check that we can drink alcohol at all, as sometimes alcohol interacts with our medication. Alcohol is a depressant, too, so it can lower our mood and we may find that we experience a really low dip for a few days after. The lower our mood, the more likely to drink. It can turn into a vicious cycle.
It’s a tricky area, and often an emotive one too, but the key is to be mindful of what’s right for you.
Giving gifts can be expensive. There are adverts plastered everywhere telling us to ‘express our love’ through presents. Being unwell can affect the amount of money we are able to earn. It can affect our ability to get to a shop. We may feel a huge weight of guilt for how little we can afford to buy.
This year, we might feel like we have to spend more than ever, and buy ‘extra’ gifts to try and make up for a difficult year, or for not being able to see people in person over the festive season. We don’t have to express our love through gifts. Nor do we have to spend a fortune on gifts. If we’re struggling to manage it, we could set ourselves a strict budget for the whole festive period. We could split it into gifts, food, travel etc.
There are lots of thrifty gift ideas on the internet. If we’re up to it, we could do something like bake biscuits and pop them in a nice bag – people love homemade gifts (and they’re postable!).
Receiving gifts can be difficult, too. We might feel guilty, undeserving, and conflicted oras though we don’t deserve gifts. We might feel like a bad person.
But we are deserving. We are not bad people. If we’re really struggling to accept gifts for ‘us’, see it as a gift for those who want to buy for us. They have enjoyed buying the gift and want to give it to us. It’s a gift for them to be able to give us this gift (however undeserving we might feel!).
The festive season can be expensive. It’s not just the gifts – the food costs can add up, travel can be pricey, and paydays and benefits payment days can change.
We could look at ways that we can make it a little cheaper. Making gifts, or buying them secondhand can be cheaper than buying them new (and better for the environment!). We could gift promises, such as notes that a loved one could ‘trade in’ for things like breakfast in bed, or a day of childcare. Buying food from more affordable shops is okay, too. Christmas doesn’t mean that we have to buy all of our food from the most expensive shop in the high street. With a bit of thought and creativity, there are quite a few ways that we can save money in the run up to Christmas.
If we can’t afford to do things. We don’t have to do them. Our families and friends wouldn’t want us to struggle with debt in order to afford Christmas.
There is some help available – food banks can help us if we’re struggling to afford to eat, there is also some other financial support available if we need it. There are charities all over the world who are offering support throughout the festive period including Helping Americans Find Help, American Hope Resources, and Salvation Army, Australia.
Our medications can give us all sort of side effects. They can leave us feeling drowsy, inhibit our ability to drive at certain times of day, and might prevent us from drinking alcohol. It can be important to take them at certain times of day – whatever we’re up to at that time.
Our health comes before anything. Our medication is important, especially over such a difficult time of year. We need to prioritise it. It’s important that we stick to medical advice because otherwise, we could end up being incredibly unwell.
This year has been full of grief in all sorts of ways. Grief is often heightened during family-focused times of the year. The space where a loved one once was, can feel like a punch in the stomach. We become emotional. We’re more tearful. We have less emotional resilience than at other times of year.
For many of us, this might be the first festive season without some of our loved ones. Depending on where we live, we might not be able to spend difficult days in the physical presence of those we’re close to. It can make us feel so incredibly isolated, lonely, and empty.
We need to try and be gentle with ourselves. Other members of the family might be feeling heightened grief, too. So, if possible, we need to try and be gentle with them aswell.
It’s so hard, and there is no easy answer. Talking about our loved one is okay. Crying is okay. Looking through old photo albums is okay. Wearing our deceased loved one’s favourite jumper is okay. Ignoring it completely is okay. Watching a film we used to watch together is okay.
Grief is an individual thing, and anything we need to do (aside from harming others or ourselves), is absolutely okay.
The festive season is a difficult time for lots of people, for all sorts of reasons. We can get through it, by showing ourselves the kindness, patience, and forgiveness, that we show to others.
Please help us to help others and share this post, you never know when you might need it.