Feeling the Christmas blues? How to cope this silly season

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Food, friends, brightly wrapped gifts and the smell of a roast wafting through the family home…what’s not to love about Christmas?

A lot, actually.

A surprising number of Australians find Christmas to be nothing but stressful. And this darker side of Christmas is rarely, if ever, spoken about. The so-called “silly season” can heighten feelings of stress, anxiety, disappointment, grief and depression.

In addition, for people who battle with substance abuse issues, the holiday period can be a very testing time full of temptation.

So what to do if you or someone you love gets the December blues?

It helps to first understand where Christmas-related anxiety comes from.

Why can Christmas be such a stressful time?

Christmas marks a deviation from our normal routine lives. Many of us take time off work, hang out with people we haven’t seen in a while or take on additional responsibilities like shopping, cooking, decorating and planning. But for some of us, life doesn’t change. Perhaps we don’t have anyone to really celebrate with. Or maybe we’re far away from those we love. For many, this time of year only reminds us of those we miss, have lost, or must put up with on Christmas day.

Whether you’re in over your head with trolleys of toys, or nursing a mug of eggnog on your own this year, here are some reasons you might be gritting your teeth at the sound of Christmas carols:

1. Loneliness

A Red Cross study found that one in three Aussies felt lonely or isolated during the festive season in 2017*. That’s one third of the Australian population. Christmas places an emphasis on family and togetherness which can be particularly difficult for those who have lost a loved one or spend their holidays on their own. If seeing everyone else around you celebrate in the community makes you feel excluded, know that you’re actually far from alone.

2. Family issues

Family get-togethers should be happy times, full of laughter and good cheer. Unfortunately, this is often far from the case. Reacquainting with split or estranged family members, distant relatives or nasty in-laws can put a strain on the big day. You may feel obliged to see people you don’t particularly like or get along with, and it doesn’t help, of course, that alcohol and long conversations are often thrown into the mix. Rifts and ill feelings can slowly simmer to the surface—or reach boiling point!

3. Substance abuse

For most families, you’d be hard-pressed to think of a time more soaked in festive liquor than Christmas. And it’s not just Christmas Day. The party often begins the week before and ends shortly after New Year’s. If you or anyone you’re celebrating with suffers from alcoholism or any other kind of substance abuse issue, the summer holiday period can be a heavy trigger.

4. Stress

It’s unfortunate that during a time when we’re supposed to be relaxing with family and friends, we often find ourselves running around like mad trying to get things done at the last minute. Whether it’s another round of Christmas shopping, dinner groceries for the kids or decorations for the house, too much activity can cause the body and mind significant stress. Any significant financial outlays related to Christmas only worsen the burden.

5. Mental health issues

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in five Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year**. Christmas time can expand feelings of mental unease, like anxiety and depression, due to its’ encouragement of being ‘merry.’ If mental health issues at Christmas are associated with family-related trauma, being faced with the people involved can make Christmas day extra tough. If you’ve lost a loved one, Christmas can also bring up painful emotions like grief, sadness or loss, especially if you celebrated with them in the past.

Tips on how to deal:

Once you’ve identified the source of your Christmas stress, you can take some or all of the following steps to help ease the burden:

Don’t go beyond what you can manage

While giving is an awesome feeling, there’s only so much we can do (and buy) for our loved ones. Don’t go crazy with presents and indulgent foods in the lead-up to the big day—it’ll only pinch your wallet, expand your waistline and probably give you a blinding headache. Set a budget and brainstorm some simple ideas with your family or friends on how you want your Christmas to look. And remember: sometimes the simplest celebrations are the most memorable.

Give back to the community

Volunteer at a soup kitchen, animal shelter or connect with a cause you’re passionate about. Coming together and seeking purpose can really help to resolve feelings of loneliness—yours and others’. Or you could attend another type of social or religious event. Find out if there any Christmas meetups happening in your area. After all, that’s what Christmas should really be about: connection.

Take plenty of time out to relax

Prioritise what needs to be done and schedule it over the following weeks, with lots of free time in-between. Christmas is more likely to be a stressful time for you if you leave everything to the last minute. Another idea is to discuss roles and responsibilities with your family. Distribute and delegate tasks, so all the work is not left to just one person. Also, don’t forget about sneaking in a bit of ‘me’ time! Peaceful activities you can do to rejuvenate your mind, body and spirit are ideal at this time of year. Try walking, listening to music, treating yourself to a massage, relaxing yoga class or even just a really good book.

Don’t throw your health out the window

Bread and butter pudding, cherry-glazed ham, garlic prawns, after-dinner mints…whatever your guilty pleasure is on the dining table this Christmas, be sure to indulge in moderation. It can be tempting to get caught up in the merriment, and overeat (and drink) with the crowd. But this is likely to worsen your Christmas anxieties, and potentially even cause negative effects in the long-term. Our livers are not invincible! A great idea could be to toy with the idea of healthy Christmas recipes—how about fresh, grilled seafood or seasonal side salads? And remember to enjoy non-alcoholic beverages in between the naughty ones. If you have a health nut in the family, be sure to check out our guide for healthy gift ideas that’ll truly impress.

Seek and offer support

Leaving stress unmanaged over a period of time can result in poor physical health, ill mental health and adrenal fatigue. Don’t allow you or a loved one to flounder in silence. Seek help from a doctor or qualified mental health professional, or reach out to somebody you can trust and let them know how you’re feeling. The reverse applies. Say hello to neighbours and check in on friends or family you haven’t heard from in awhile. Let those in your life who are vulnerable know that they can count on you for support if you feel able to give it.

Set boundaries

You might find it difficult to say no, but by taking on too much, you’re doing yourself (and others) a disservice. After all, you can only give what you have. You might find it helpful to set up people’s expectations in advance. Determine, realistically, how much time you’re able to set aside for shopping and planning, and how much money you’re able to spend in the lead up to Christmas day. In terms of the day itself, it may be helpful to plan where you’ll be and how long you’ll stay so that you have a clear idea of what your day will look like (and can plan accordingly).

Communicate your needs clearly and stick to them to minimise unwanted or perceived pressure. Those who matter will understand and respect your wishes.

Keep your usual routine

It’s easy to get caught up in the festivities (and there’s nothing wrong with this if you want to get involved) but don’t feel the pressure to drop everything for one day. Life goes on. Remember that nothing is actually changing… Unless you want it to. There’s nothing wrong with keeping your usual schedule as it is, whether that means working through the Christmas holidays or continuing to focus on your own personal goals.

Remember…

Christmas shouldn’t be a hassle. When all’s said and done, it’s only a day and we make it what we want it to be. But if you’re still cringing at the sight of tinsel, know that you’re not alone. Lots of Aussies can get down at this time of year, and there are plenty of reasons why. Mental health at Christmas is an issue we shouldn’t ignore.

Luckily, as we’ve explored, there are lots of measures we can take to make sure we’re looking after ourselves this silly season. So give them a go, and transform your end-of-year celebrations from a stressful mess to a holiday of fun.

It’s also worth mentioning that social media can be a pesky place to hang out at this time of year. We need to remember that most people only post the “highlights” of their life. You’re unlikely to see the hangovers, the stress, the family conflict or the potential loneliness, so try not to compare yourself to others.

Take some time out instead to focus on you and your loved ones. That’s, after all, what Christmas is all about.

*https://www.redcross.org.au/news-and-media/media-centre/media-releases/festive-season-loneliness-survey
**https://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/subscriber.nsf/0/6AE6DA447F985FC2CA2574EA00122BD6/$File/National%20Survey%20of%20Mental%20Health%20and%20Wellbeing%20Summary%20of%20Results.pdf

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