Coping at Christmas

We are constantly bombarded on TV, online, through social media and when out at the shops that the festive season is supposed to be joyous: a time for connection, family and friends, and relaxing. However, for many people, this time of the year is particularly difficult, for a number of reasons. In this short blog I will outline just some of the reasons that this time of year can be tricky. I’ll then provide some tips or strategies that you can try, to maintain your own mental health and wellbeing.

It’s OK to not feel festive

On social media you may have seen festive pictures of people laughing, eating and drinking and catching up with friends. Many people tell me that they feel immense pressure to see people, feel happy and enjoy this time of year. This pressure can feel overwhelming and can lead to worry thoughts (such as “Why don’t I feel the same way?” or “Something must be wrong with me because I don’t feel very Christmassy”). This can lead to feelings of anxiety, anger and confusion. If you’re not feeling in the festive spirit this year, then that is totally OK, and a normal feeling shared by lots and lots of people.

To start, it’s worth situating this year (as was the same for last Christmas) in context: we are still learning to live with COVID-19. Many people will rightly be concerned about socialising with others and potentially catching the virus themselves. From the psychological evidence base we know that it is hard for people to feel happy and relaxed when there is an ‘external threat’, so of course people may feel a bit different to usual.

Here’s some tips if you’re worried about not feeling festive:

  • Be kind to yourself – there’s a lot going on in the world right now, and it’s very understandable if you don’t feel happy and joyous all the time. It can be helpful to ‘zoom out’ and think about all the other things that you may have going on in your life, and remind yourself that the festive period is only a week or two. Maybe you’ve never felt happy or excited over this period. That’s totally fine. 
  • If you’re comparing yourself and your situation with others you see on social media, remind yourself that people tend to showcase the best of themselves online. Some people you see may very well be struggling with their own thoughts and feelings, and only showing you their ‘best side’.
  • At this time of year, it may help to connect with something else that’s meaningful for you. Perhaps you can get into a good book or TV series? Or resume a hobby?

Coping with the loss of loved ones

Christmas is often a time when families and friends come together. If someone close to you has passed away, their absence can be difficult to manage at this time of year. If this is the case for you, then it’s completely normal to feel more upset around Christmas.

Here are some tips to consider if you’re noticing the absence of a loved one:
  • Remind yourself that grief is not a cyclical process, and there is no ‘right way’ to grieve. Some days we can feel OK, other days we don’t. Sometimes the smallest of things can bring on floods of tears, and sometimes we may even feel angry that our loved one is no longer here. These are all normal emotions and normal responses. Let these feelings in and allow yourself to process them.
  • Try not to feel guilty if you’re having a ‘good time’ or you are enjoying yourself. When we lose someone close to us, we often feel as if enjoying ourselves means that we’re somehow ‘forgetting’ about them. Perhaps it might be helpful to reframe this and think to yourself how much your loved one would enjoy seeing you happy.
  • Make time and space for a small remembrance of your loved one’s life, if you want to. This may be a time when you and others share memories of your loved one, or ‘raise a glass’ to them. This can be a nice way to feel as if you’re still including them in your connection with others. 

Managing consumption of alcohol

Some people use alcohol to cope with difficult emotions. Some people use alcohol as a way of ‘fitting in’ with others or feeling better in social situations. For some, they might have used alcohol for so long that they’ve become dependent on it, and struggle to get through the day without drinking.

The Christmas period is a time of year with strong associations with drinking. Coupled with the incoming new year celebrations, resisting alcohol can be tricky. If your relationship with alcohol (or other substances) is not as healthy as you’d perhaps like it to be, then this time of year can make people feel anxious, stressed, low and apprehensive. If you are in recovery, or have been abstinent for a little while now, this time of year can be difficult to manage because temptation is everywhere. Other people are not always mindful of this, and all too often I hear people say, “Oh go on, just have one”, or “How come you’re not drinking, don’t be boring!” When these are the messages you get from other people, it takes an awful lot of strength to refuse a drink.

Here are some tips for managing these situations, and your consumption of alcohol during this period:
  • If you feel like temptation is too strong when you’re around certain people, consider if there are ways to celebrate with them that don’t involve alcohol. For example, can you meet in a café for a catch-up earlier on in the day, or remotely via Zoom?
  • If you know that people will offer you drinks at a get together, perhaps message some people you may know beforehand and let them know that you’re not drinking, and for them to please only offer you soft drinks. If more people know you’re not drinking, then the more people there are to ‘step in’ and help out if others offer you a drink. You also don’t need to tell people why you’re not drinking. You can simply say “I’d prefer not to drink at the moment, and hope that others can respect that”.
  • If alcohol is something that you rely on and that you use every day, and you’d like to change this, then I’d recommend speaking to a professional or a charity that specialise in substance use. Even over Christmas support is available, and these organisations can help you come up with a plan to reduce your alcohol consumption safely.

Managing urges to gamble

This time of year can bring about the urge to gamble for those affected by problem gambling, whether through financial strains, anxiety, or any other reason. So what can you do to manage those thoughts and urges to gamble if you do notice them happening?

The answer to this lies in knowing that thoughts and urges don't last forever. Sometimes, when you're in the throes of a strong urge to do something, it feels like the only way of getting rid of that urge is to act it out. But scientists and psychologists have shown that urges to follow habits or strong behaviours are a bit like a wave. They come in forcefully with power and influence, but left to their own devices without acting on those urges, the wave weakens. You can try exercise if you enjoy physical activity. Or, getting into a bath without access to mobile devices is something Stacey (@Thegirlgambler on Instagram) found helpful in recovery.

Another strategy for resisting urges is almost the opposite of distraction; something psychologists call mindful surfing. It is based on the idea that we are not our thoughts and feelings and urges; they are a part of us and a part of our experience, but do not define us. Mindful urge surfing allows us to become an observer of the thoughts and feelings we have in our body and our mind while knowing that we have the choice to resist those things.

This short video from our Lead Clinician, Dr Jamie Barsky, can help you understand more about why we have thoughts and urges to gamble or engage in any behaviour that we know is probably not good for us; it explains more on how the brain works in using these strategies above. 

Organisations that can support you

There are lots of organisations that can support people during the festive period. I have listed just a few of these below:
Whatever you are or are not doing this festive season, I hope that you can find some peace in the next few weeks. If this time of year is especially tricky for you, then it may be comforting to know that this period will pass soon, and a new year will begin. If you’d like to make changes in your life in the new year, please do reach out for help. You may be eligible for free therapy at AnonyMind. Get in touch to see how we can help.

Dr Brendan J Dunlop (he/him)