The festive season and mental health: It’s OK not to be OK

The holidays is a time for joy right? Well no actually, not always. Whether you are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah or just having time with family there can be lots of reasons why you might not feel particularly joyful, and that doesn’t make you wrong, grumpy or unusual. It’s very common for people to struggle with their mental health, particularly at this time of year.

Here in Nova Scotia it’s feeling very Christmassy right now. The radio stations started the Christmas songs in November. The modern-traditional Christmas adverts are doing the rounds on social media and the TV. My neighbourhood is full of lights and decorations. Today we even have a small sprinkling of snow. And a lot of us will have reminders of Christmas or other celebrations in our homes too. I’m writing this next to a big tree in my living room and somewhere under some papers I have a list of things to do and buy. Whether you celebrate or not, you can’t easily avoid it. And of course, these big celebrations aren’t really about all the tinsel and lights. For most people it’s about community, generosity and giving. For some it’s also a spiritual time. Regardless of what the holidays means to you the message given to us culturally is that it should be a time of joy. So what if you don’t feel this?

There can be lots of reasons people struggle with their mental health at this time of year. Here are some common themes, and suggestions to help you manage:

Memories

The holiday season is generally a time people spend with family. It might mean travelling to visit relatives or setting aside time to share a meal. But life changes. Your family may have grown up. You may have lost someone. Because this season comes around every year, inevitably we look back and remember. And when someone is missing, or there have been better times, it can be hard. You may also have struggled in the past at this time of year, due to a traumatic event or your mood, and these memories can be just as vivid. Memories can feel closer to the surface in the festive season.

If you find yourself struggling with your mood due to memories, give yourself permission to be sad. We can easily get caught up in the commercialism and feel that we ‘should’ be happy, all of the time. But it’s healthier to be honest with yourself, and others, about missing someone who was close or looking back to happier times. If you need time to be sad, in company or alone, allow yourself to have that.

If you are missing someone, find ways to remember them. This could mean continuing traditions that they may have started or been a part of. It might mean sharing memories and stories, with family and friends, through conversations or by looking at photos.

Family time

When I think of Christmas, I think of family. The typical image we are shown by the media is of an idealised loving family, enjoying time together. No tantrums, no arguments, no stress. Sounds great! However, families have quirks, and sometimes relatives don’t get on. Different families have different ways of doing celebrations. How much do you spend on gifts? When do you open presents? How do you choose who to visit? Adding family dynamics to a celebration with a formal meal, gift-giving and lots of sugar has the potential to create some friction. As well as the issues in bringing families together, it can be hard for immediate family members when the routine changes. The kids have three weeks off school this year. For some families, this will be tough. Kids who thrive on routine may struggle with the change. Adults who are balancing work and childcare may find this a stressful time. Spending time with family can be lovely, but it can also be hard.

If family time is difficult for you this year, think boundaries.

For kids that might struggle with the break, plan in some routine. This doesn’t have to be boring, but can include time to play with new toys or doing activities together. Bear in mind that siblings who are not used to spending all day every day together might need alone time. The excitement of the day itself might be overwhelming for some kids. If your kid struggles with behaviour this post might help. Plan in downtime and consider a walk to burn off energy.

If you are struggling with adult family members, add in your own boundaries. Give yourself some space away from the social time if you need to re-charge. Be mindful in conversations and if you feel tension rising, take some time to consider how to handle this. Some conversations are not healthy or helpful, or sometimes its not the right time to discuss it. Other conversations might be appropriate but might need some calm. If you can be calm, often that will help others around you to do the same.

With heightened emotions, and especially given the complications of this year, families are likely to be at a greater risk of domestic violence. Never stay in a situation that is unsafe. If you need help over Christmas, there are resources here.

Loneliness

Whether you have family around or not, loneliness is a common theme during the holidays. Loneliness can be a problem because you have lost a loved one, or because you are physically apart from family. Certainly this year a lot of us are apart from family due to the pandemic. This is especially hard, as it isn’t something we have chosen. Loneliness can also affect these who are with family, but who might not be feeling joy in the same way, or when families are not the idealised picture we want them to be.

As above, if you are struggling with loneliness, allow yourself permission to feel sad. Take the time you need, be kind to yourself, and lose the expectation to feel something different.

In terms of doing, be proactive. Think connection. Loneliness can often be lessened dramatically by honesty and feeling listened to. Meaningfully connect to these around you, by being honest with them about your own feelings. If this does not feel possible or helpful, connect with a friend. Alternatively, connect to something external. This could be nature, or a craft activity or a good book. Take up something proactive to re-connect, as much as possible, to others and to yourself.

Winter blues

Regardless of the celebration, this is the time of year when many find their mood slips a little, or a lot. Sunshine changes our brain chemistry and makes us feel brighter. So when there is less sunshine, or less warm weather to tempt us outside, it can affect our mood.

If you struggle with the seasonal changes, a longer-term game plan will be helpful. Be reflective and consider what has helped in the past. Using this information, be proactive and plan in activities that might lift your mood. The key with low mood is to be active and to stick to your plan. More information is here. Put mood-boosting activities into your daily routine.

These with seasonal mood changes may also benefit from more light. The easiest and cheapest way to get this is to step outside. Put on your winter gear and get in the sun.

Pressure

Having a ‘good time’ can feel like a lot of pressure. Buying gifts for everyone, preparing a meal, advent calendars, elf on the shelf, cards. If, like most, you have other responsibilities in life, it can feel stressful to get everything done, and to create the perfect day for your family.

If you struggle with feeling overwhelmed at this time of year, take step back. Prioritise and delegate. What can you drop? And what can others do? This year is likely to be a very different celebration for a lot of us, with Covid-19 restrictions still in place. For some families this might mean an opportunity to dial down the amount to do. The holidays don’t have to be a time of activity but can be a time for quiet, rest and reflection. If you have a busy household, this might feel impossible, but perhaps consider where you can make more space this year, in your own life.

I know our family will be doing things differently because of work, and being apart from family. It’s not what I would have chosen, but we will have a quieter day, with some new Christmassy activities, that don’t involve lots of cooking or entertaining. We will be doing some 80s style Christmas games and we may do a walk or a film.

Re-frame, get back to basics, and create some new memories.

I hope this post gives you permission to own your feelings this year. If you feel the joy then embrace it. And if you don’t, then that’s ok too. Do what you need to do to look after yourself. Kindness is not just for other people. As always, I’m here if you need more support. The only week Imagine Therapy will be closed is the Christmas week, so please do reach out via or website or email.

2 Comments on “The festive season and mental health: It’s OK not to be OK

  1. Goodness. I needed this post. My family is close knit and we always have so much fun during the holidays. This year, however, my 33 year old son suddenly passed away on Thanksgiving Day. Devastated and numb, I haven’t put up a tree or decorated. No Christmas music and no wrapping station. This year is going to be very different, but now I realize it’s okay.

    Like

    • I’m so sorry, that’s a huge loss. Completely understandable that this year needs to be different. It must still feel very close. Do what you need to do to get through. Glad the post was helpful.

      Like

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