‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year’ chimed Andy Williams as I switched on the radio. ‘It’s the hap-happiest season of all, with those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings when friends come to call, it’s the hap-happiest season of all…’ I listened intently to the cheery verses which spoke of gleeful gatherings: eating toasted marshmallows and people coming together under the mistletoe. And, for many, Christmas festivities bring sparkle and joy at a time when days are dark and the weather dreary. It is a sure thing, you cannot escape the holiday season; channels dedicated to showing Christmas movies appear on the tv schedule, shops burst with toys, gifts and festive foods. Scents of mixed spice and mulled wine linger in the air. Houses adorned with twinkly lights line the streets; the chaotic merriment permeates through every aspect of our lives and senses.
But some feel choked by it all. For some, Christmastime and the days running up to the end of the year can feel difficult and triggering and it may not feel like ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ at all. During this time, whilst ‘festive fever’ takes hold throughout the country, clients concerns have presented themselves in the therapy room in some of the following ways.
Social anxiety can be difficult at any time of the year but is heightened around the time of Christmas. Organised events can dominate both professional and personal calendars and the pressure to be imbibe the ‘Christmas spirit’ can leave people feeling overwhelmed physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Physical symptoms can include an increase in heart rate, muscle tension, shortness of breath, dizziness and feeling nauseous (you can read more about this here). Psychologically, there may be a feelings of being judged, self-consciousness around people or a fear of saying/doing the wrong thing. New, unfamiliar environments can often leave people feeling apprehensive.
Mind, the mental health charity, conducted a poll in 2015 which found that 1 in 4 adults in the UK feel anxious about social gatherings over Christmas. Furthermore, a fifth of the respondents admitted to feigning sickness so as not to attend a staff Christmas party. Social anxiety is more common that you may think, it affects around 10% of the population, you are not alone.
If this sounds familiar, then here are some suggestions to help you navigate social gatherings:
- Plan in advance. Clue yourself up on start and finish times, who may be there, your travel to and from the event or arrange to go with a friend. Feeling in control of situations can be helpful when you are feeling anxious.
- Give yourself a break – if you are at an event and feel overwhelmed, take a step back rather than leaving the event altogether. Plan a toilet break or a moment to step out into the fresh air. Take a moment to check in with yourself and regroup.
- Breathe through it. When anxiety is felt physically, try and take deep belly breaths with a deep inhale and a longer exhale. Apps such as CALM and Headspace can be a helpful go-to in these situations. Meditative practices are great, but they are more effective in the moment when practiced regularly.
- Say ‘no’. Try looking ahead at your social calendar and have an honest chat with yourself to establish how much you can realistically manage and take on. There is no rulebook on how much or how little you should do over Christmas. Practice a little self-care and do what feels manageable and right for you.
Food and Drink
Food and drink can become a festive nightmare for anyone who has a disordered relationship with food or a diagnosed eating disorder. And whilst Christmas is about many things, there is an undeniable focus on food. From tins of chocolate circulating in the office, countless buffets, the biggest banquet of the year to advent calendars – this can feel like a lot to juggle for anyone who has a difficult relationship with food.
The social aspect of eating is also compounded at Christmas time. Sitting around the dinner table with people or attending a work dinner may seem pretty straightforward to most, but can be the cause of stress and anxiety to those who may not choose to eat in front of others.
If this resonates with you then consider the following:
- Try and keep to a routine. Routines can go out the window over the holiday season especially if you are taking time off or travelling. For example, if exercise helps you cope and manage your eating disorder then try and build some physical activity in to the day, even if that means a stroll in the park rather than a full workout at the gym. If you are travelling and are there is uncertainty over the food that will be available, then carry familiar foods with you so you are not left stuck and anxious. Plan your meals and your mealtimes if you are able to.
- Distraction techniques may help in the short term. Stay present and in the moment, spend time engaging in activities, friends and family.
Isolation and Loneliness
Talking about isolation and loneliness in the same breath as Christmas feels paradoxical. Christmas is said to be a time for coming together, drawing closer to friends, family and loved ones. But it can also make people feel increasingly isolated or lonely, especially if this is due to a recent move, change in circumstance or a breakdown in relationship. Loneliness is subjective and holds different meanings for different people but generally it is the uneasy feeling that arises when our expectations for social connections and relationships are not being met. We can be isolated but actually not feel lonely, or surrounded by lots of people and feel completely alone. And sometimes it is not only about feeling this way in relation to others but feeling disconnected with oneself.
If you are experiencing these feelings, you may want to try some of the following:
- Volunteer – charitable organisations often rely on the kindness of their volunteers at this time of year. Enquire with your local foodbank, soup kitchen or other organisations that may need a helping hand over the Christmas break. If you’re looking for somewhere to volunteer this Christmas, try:
- The Trussell Trust – whether volunteering at a local food bank or collecting donations, there are a range of ways that you can help.
- Re-engage – volunteer your time to become a ‘call companion’ to help the lonely elderly at Christmas and speak to and wish someone a happy Christmas.
- One Another – a free platform that helps you to do small acts of kindness within your community.
- Doit.life – recommended by the charity Mind for finding volunteering opportunities in the UK.
- National Council for Voluntary Organisations – provides information about volunteering opportunities including details of local centres.
- Speak to someone – whether it is a professional, organisation or someone that you can trust and feel comfortable talking to. Remember the Samaritans are open 24/7 any time, day and night. Call 116 123. Further information can be found here.
- Manage your social media, choose what you consume. An over reliance on social media during this time, with advertising and people sharing their stories may impact self-esteem. Try not to compare your experiences to what others may be doing. What someone portrays on social media is not the full picture.
Grieving a loved one is incredibly painful but can be more challenging at this time of year. It may be your first Christmas without that special person, or they may have died years ago but you may feel your grief more intensely during the holiday season. Memories made around Christmas may be tightly woven into your experiences with the person/people that have died; songs, food dishes, favourite films, games can all be triggers to grief and loss.
If you are currently grieving, please consider:
- Planning ahead – think about how you may want to celebrate, or not. It is important to do what feels right for you and not feel pressured into doing things that do not feel comfortable. If you have spent some time thinking about this then it may become easier to be able to communicate your thoughts and feelings to others.
- Try to maintain a routine – the Christmas period may disrupt your normal routine and therefore, keeping regular patterns of sleeping and eating where possible can make a difference. Seeing friends and family, or volunteering for the day (see information above), are all small things that can help.
- Talk to someone – if you are struggling do deal with your grief over Christmas then call the Cruse helpline on 0808 808 1677. Opening hours can be accessed here.
However you’re feeling this Christmas, please know that you are not alone, your feelings are valid, whatever they are, and you do not have to struggle alone. Your natural response to managing your emotions may be to retreat into yourself but be kind to yourself and extend out. There are people willing and able to take your hand over the festive period if you are able to extend it.
If you need mental health support on Christmas Day, Samaritans is available to call 24/7 on 116 123.