Why Christmas puts so much pressure on our mental health, and tips for reducing stress during the Christmas season.
We’re told it’s the most wonderful time of the year, a time to find comfort in cosy traditions, celebrate with family and friends, curl up in front of the telly in your warm home, exchange presents, and eat until you’re stuffed. But if you’re not feeling excited for Christmas this year, you’re not alone. Today our digital communications office, Alice, shares her thoughts on the pressure we all feel under at Christmas.
For the past two Christmases, Covid-19 restrictions meant that millions of people were unable to see their loved ones at Christmas, and many people spent the day alone.
2022 is supposed to be different. For the first time since 2019 we’re allowed to visit our families, mix households without worrying about tiers or bubbles, throw Christmas parties, and go out to do our Christmas shopping.
But life isn’t back to ‘normal’. Many people are still struggling with loneliness, trying to rebuild a social life, and adjusting to new working conditions. For people with health conditions or vulnerable relatives, catching Covid-19 is still a huge risk. And now we’re also dealing with a cost-of-living crisis, adding even more pressure at a time of year that’s already difficult for so many.
Christmas and the cost-of-living crisis
With bills and prices soaring, it’s understandable that many people are thinking about reworking their favourite festive traditions this year.
Christmas can be expensive even at the best of times. We might buy each other gifts, go out for meals or parties, decorate our homes, travel long distances to see relatives, and prepare over-indulgent festive meals. But this year, it’s estimated that 60% of people in Britain will spend less on Christmas due to the costs of living. 34% also say they’re cutting down on social gatherings with friends, family and work colleagues.
How Christmas affects our mental health
Whether you celebrate Christmas or try to ignore it, the festive season can put a lot of pressure on you and affect your mental health in many ways. For example, you might:
Feel left out because everyone else seems to be excited for Christmas
Feel like your Christmas doesn’t live up to other people’s ‘perfect’ Christmases or Christmases you see in the media
Worry about preparing for Christmas because you’re dealing with other stressful things in your life, such as money worries or problems at work
Feel guilty about spoiling Christmas because you’re not enjoying it as much as you want to
Grieve for loved ones who are no longer here to share Christmas with you, or feel the pressure to help someone else who’s struggling have a better Christmas.
Although it can feel like you’re the only one not having a good time, struggling with your mental health at Christmas is very common – In 2019, 2 in 5 British adults reported feeling stressed during the festive season and around 1 in 4 reported feeling lonely. And that was before the Covid-19 pandemic. This year, the cost-of-living crisis also means that people may be feeling more stressed and left out than ever before.
So, what is it about Christmas that puts so much pressure on our mental health? And what can we do to reduce the pressure?
The true meaning of Christmas
It’s funny how our expectations about Christmas develop. From a young age, our favourite festive stories tell us that no one can resist the joy of Christmas (and if you do, you’re probably the villain):
The Grinch hates Whoville’s noisy, extravagant Christmas celebrations. But then he realises that it’s the Whos’ love and friendship that brings them together on Christmas and his heart grows three sizes larger.
In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge makes amends for his long history of cruelty by becoming a kind, charitable man just in time for Christmas Day.
In Olive, the Other Reindeer, our villain is a postman who’s fed up with being overworked at Christmas – a valid complaint in our world, but in a world where Santa manages to deliver billions of presents in one night, this postman comes across as a bit unreasonable.
Of course, these stories all have great messages about being kind, generous and caring. But they also pressurise us by implying this is what Christmas should be – surrounding yourself with loved ones and bringing happiness wherever you go.
The true meaning of Christmas isn’t restricted to films either. In recent years, Christmas adverts from companies like John Lewis are praised for their heart-warming stories which often involve loving families, sharing the perfect gifts, and tables heaving with Christmas food.
Fortunately, companies have taken care this year to be create adverts that are more sensitive to the rising costs of living. However, if you’re feeling lonely at this time of year, receiving this message about the ‘true meaning of Christmas’ over and over again can be tough. It can feel like you’re the only person in the world that doesn’t have someone to celebrate with.
The pressure of Christmas nostalgia
For many, love of Christmas is embedded in nostalgia. We enjoy the same Christmas traditions year-after-year, and we develop strong opinions about the right way to do Christmas, such as how long to leave the decorations up or what time to have Christmas lunch.
While the repetitiveness of our Christmas traditions can be comforting, they can also harm to our mental health.
Perhaps the most controversial Christmas tradition is our relationship with Christmas music. From Away in a Manger to Wham!, we’re used to hearing the same familiar tunes year-after-year, and for some it’s what makes Christmas special.
But it doesn’t make you a Grinch if hearing the first warbling note of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas leaves you cold.
Our senses are strongly connected with memory, and our brains can associate music with past experiences, particularly if we’re exposed to certain music a lot. For people who feel nostalgic about Christmas, familiar festive tunes can put them in the Christmas spirit. But if you’ve gone through stress or trauma around Christmas time (whether related to the holiday or not), you might associate Christmas songs with negative emotions like sadness, discomfort or frustration instead.
Tips for taking the pressure off this Christmas
If Christmas is affecting your mental health this year, here are some tips you can try to take some of the pressure off.
Notice your triggers or stressors
Can you identify things that trigger negative emotions or put extra stress on you around Christmas time? Are there any ways you can reduce those triggers and stressors? For example:
Wear ear buds when you go to the shops to keep you in your bubble
Agree with family or friends to keep costs of presents low
Schedule in some self-care time every day, such as taking a walk or reading your book
Remind yourself that it’s ok to say no thank you if people are trying to add more to your plate.
Let yourself feel your emotions
At this time of year, when everyone is supposed to be happy, sociable and excited for Christmas, it’s easy to feel distant and isolated, even from your family and friends.
But it’s not rude, selfish or ungrateful to struggle with your mental health around Christmas. It doesn’t make you a failure for not feeling happy or excited about Christmas.
Reaching out for help around Christmas time can be really tough, but one way you can start to take the pressure off yourself is to let yourself feel these emotions – name them and try to recognise where they come from. For example:
Sadness over drifting apart from a friend
Anxiety about travelling during the busy holiday period
Stress over the costs of this expensive time of year.
Remember that all your emotions are valid, and it doesn’t mean there’s a problem with you. Instead, try challenging negative thoughts when they arise. For example,
‘I don’t have any friends. I’ll always be alone’ à ‘I won’t always feel lonely. I can make friends. I deserve love and friendship.’
Feeling lonely at Christmas can be really hard but try to remember things won’t always be this way. You can make changes to your life, and it all starts with very small steps. Here are some small steps you could take to help you cope with loneliness:
Start a journal to get your feelings out in the open – try writing something good that’s happened or something that you’re grateful for every day.
Spend time in public places – being around people can stop you becoming isolated and give you small but essential boosts of social interaction. Try going to a local coffee shop, taking your book to the library, or taking a walk in the park.
Reduce your time on social media – people tend to only show the best bits of their lives online. If you feel like the endless scroll is affecting your self-worth or confidence, try to take some time away.
Try volunteering – volunteering can help you meet new people and boost your confidence.
How do you cope with pressure at Christmas? Do you have any tips for looking after your mental health at Christmas? Share them with us – firstname.lastname@example.org.
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