When Christmas sends you crackers: mental health in the festive season

As a merry voice on the radio is currently reminding me at least once an hour, it’s the most wonderful time of the year—but as anybody with mental health problems knows, the month of December can be anything but.

I used to love Christmas. But after losing my Dad and experiencing severe anxiety and depression several years ago, the season hasn’t just lost it’s magic… it often makes me feel actively worse.

mental health at christmas 2
I also apparently used to look like Michael McIntyre, but that’s not the point.

As the excitement ramps up, so do the mental health triggers. If you have issues with food and body image, the endless parade of festive feasting is a nightmare. If money is a big source of your anxiety, the pressure is ramped up even more. If you’re suffering because you’ve lost someone you love in the last year, the whole thing feels almost offensively pointless—no present in the world can plug that gap.

And all of this is sharpened by the expectations of happiness. The general environment doesn’t help; long, dark days and terrible weather are a killer if your mental health is fragile—and this is made all the worse if you feel like everyone around you is having fun, fun, fun. It’s sad to say, but Christmas can be a truly lonely and difficult time.

Just to really push you over the edge, there are emotional booby traps everywhere. Christmas TV adverts destroy me: I can’t even talk about the BBC father-daughter animation without welling up. As I found to my embarrassment at work. Oops.

Unfortunately, short of hibernating, it’s hard to avoid the whole shebang. It’s been three years since I lost my Dad and simultaneously lost my shit—here’s what I’ve learnt about dealing with Christmas along the way.

Treat yourself first – the rest can follow

treat yoself

It’s a time of giving, but remember you can’t pour from an empty cup. Take time out from the madness for self-care, quiet reflection, a hot drink on a busy day of shopping—whatever you need. A bonus tip: if Christmas is hard because you’re grieving, make the most of an awful situation and splash the cash you would have spent on them, on something nice for yourself. (Shallow? Yes. Do I care? No.)

People not presents

In a completely contradictory bit of advice: focus on people not presents. Make the time for your loved ones; it seems like effort sometimes, but you’ll feel better after. And don’t be afraid to open up. When everyone’s caught up in the Christmas hype, I often worry I’m being a party pooper. But really, there’s a lot of good people out there—and once you start admitting that you’re struggling, you’ll be amazed how many people fess up to their own private struggles. If you can’t believe in the magic of Christmas, believe in the magic capacity of people to give you the support and love you deserve. You might just be surprised.

Sack it off

Remember you aren’t obliged to engage in the whole shebang. It doesn’t make you a Scrooge or a bad person. Let’s be real: the whole thing’s a horrendous capitalist ploy. If Christmas makes you feel awful, bin it off wherever you can. In the words of a wise and sassy colleague, ‘TURN OFF THE MUSIC AND THROW AWAY THE JUMPER!’

Change it up

christmas in australia

And finally, if you can’t avoid it, and you can’t make it better… make it different. Do whatever version of Christmas you think will bring you the most peace, whether that’s sacking off the work Christmas party or refusing to stress yourself out with Christmas dinner, a la Caitlin Moran. The best Christmas I’ve ever spent, mental-health wise, was pissed up in a swimming pool in northern Australia. It was so different, I didn’t have time to dwell on my sadness. There were no presents, social pressures, or expectations—and the only mass consumerism was a mass consumerism of tinnies. Win.

So there you have it—a rushed post this week (I’ve been away and am now dying of a cold so struggling with my to-do list) but hopefully one which resonates with at least a few people. I’d love to hear how you all cope with the difficulties of the festive period—let me know in the comments, and good luck with the rest of the month!

Nic x

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