For the last 10 years or so Christmas for my family has looked quite different each year. We are a small unit of only 4 in this country, and every year one or all of us have been going through challenges. Sometimes we did well to support each other and unite as a team, and Christmas was a comforting experience, reminding us of where there is love in our lives, and to be grateful and generous. Other times it was a struggle to reconcile what we thought Christmas should look like, with the reality of our circumstances.. It’s funny how you can go through the motions together, but still feel very lonely. In my experience, when you are going through personal struggles and choose not to share it, your silence creates a void between you and those around you, and conflict can arise from the smallest of things.
There has however, been a very significant shift from recent events in the last 2 years. As a family we have made a conscious effort to focus on the things which bring us together; to celebrate the things which connect us, and to be more forgiving of the things which cause conflict and distance. This has meant again designing our Christmases in a way to maximize our own and each other’s happiness… so this year my husband and I will be making infused olive oils as gifts for my family, and together with our son, our Christmas lunch will be at my Mum’s apartment on Christmas eve, with my Dad and his girlfriend, and my brother on skype from New Zealand… and that is just the beginning of our very mix and match Christmas.
If there’s anything I’ve learnt from self-reflection, it’s that any of the factors we identify as causing feelings of anxiety – at Christmas or any other time, can all be seen as opportunities to learn about our own psychological patterns of behavior – and opportunities to choose to react differently. Christmas is celebrated as a time of joy, so…we CAN choose happiness. Happiness is freedom, and the first step to freedom is ‘awareness’. Once we are aware of the triggers that precede our negative reactions, we can (often with a bit of help and guidance) choose to act with compassion and forgiveness – first towards ourselves, and then towards those around us. That gap between a trigger and our reaction is where our Freedom is.
This got me thinking about what are the triggers at a time like Christmas, which can create both internal and external conflicts for us, and how can we take control of these? I have experienced lots of very powerful emotions, good and bad… that were at play when Christmas came around. They weren’t caused by it, but somehow Christmas seems to draw our attention back to ourselves and it can be either quite difficult to see or very liberating. For many people even the idea of the looming Christmas period stirs feelings of anxiety. I don’t think you have to be someone who identifies themselves as being especially susceptible to bouts of depression.. if like me, even a small part of you wants to hold back on getting into ‘Christmas’ gear until the last minute, then some of these issues may be affecting you – whether you are conscious of it or not.
So what could be triggering our anxiety and depression at Christmas?
Christmas is highly commercialized. We are bombarded with images and advertising that lead us to believe that our happiness at Christmas should look a certain way. I try to remind myself that NOBODY has the authority to tell us what our happiness should look like, that is entirely in our hands.
We are told that to be happy at Christmas we must be ‘generous’ by buying and giving lots of gifts.
- The reality for many people is that at the end of the year (especially) they are struggling financially, and may already be living with debt.
- Maybe take a moment to consider your reality and your capacities. You may decide like me, you can’t afford to give presents like you did in previous years. I find it helps to be open with your friends and family and mention in advance that you will be making something special.
- You can be creative; give in a way that feels joyful to you.
We are told that being happy at Christmas involves being highly sociable.
- If you feel burdened by the expectation to see lots of people, to indulge in expensive or lavish celebrations.. try taking a moment to check how the choices you are making are affecting your happiness. Make sure you are being authentic.. are they really your choices?
- This is not the only opportunity you have to have fun with friends. You can choose not to see those people who are not good company.
… Your choices are not right or wrong, they are personal… they are your right.
- If you are worried about conflict at family gatherings, it might be helpful to prepare a few strategies to neutralize tension; a response such as “Let’s talk about this another time”; or maybe agree with a friend or partner how you can support each other to avoid conflict in different situations.
- So many people can feel a heightened sense of loneliness and despair during Christmas because they are not able to be with loved ones or don’t have many people around them. Other people like me, may have family around but feel detached from them all because of something they are struggling with. There are always people around us who are ready to give support, and help us reconnect; even if it’s a friendly voice at the Samaritans. It’s so important to voice these feelings, so we can learn what to do with them.
** See the link at the bottom of the page **
I’ve noticed in cultures where we live quite independent lives and allow each other on a daily basis the privacy to make autonomous decisions, it can feel like there is an unnatural shift at Christmas- where suddenly the way we live becomes more public and open for judgement. Everybody asks you “what are you doing for Christmas?”, “What did you get for Christmas?”.
- It’s just too easy to indulge in too much self-reflection and comparison with other people’s lives and circumstances. In the past I found it hard not to spend December wishing I had more money for presents and parties, more energy, more time with my husband, more family around, more friends that wanted to see me, was thinner, and had nicer clothes – especially something sparkly, because everyone has a dazzling outfit at Christmas… assuming of course, that everyone I knew was already having the time of their life throughout all of December – But Not January – the media tells us that January is when everybody has a ‘comedown’ of course. None of this is true.
- To avoid falling into this ‘victim’ mentality we can choose to respond to this period of ‘sharing’, by involving ourselves in charitable activities and being active in giving to those less fortunate.
- Being reminded of your capacity to bring happiness, and of how fortunate you are to have what some people don’t.. are very healthy ways to connect with the world around you.
- Remember that the expectations another person may set for themselves at Christmas, do not have to be the same as yours. They may choose to give expensive gifts and live a lavish lifestyle at Christmas, you may choose differently. Neither choice is better or worse, they are personal so cannot be compared.
Loneliness can become more apparent at a time like Christmas. Again, these feelings, whatever they originate from, can be amplified because we are comparing our circumstances to other people’s… or our own at another time.
- For someone who feels grief in their life because of loss, whether it is loss of loved ones; loss of a job or house; or anything that held importance in their life…Christmas may simply be a trigger that draws their attention to these feelings.
- Christmas can be an opportunity to choose to seek support whilst you have self-awareness. It can be a time of healing; a time to talk and feel ‘connected’ in stead of ‘isolated’. There are many resources to seek support, which are especially prepared during this time for people to reach out.
** See the link at the bottom of the page **
How can we break or avoid a negative mental cycle? – Being generous and compassionate to ourselves first.
Of course Christmas is not the only time to behave this way, but as it seems to be especially highlighted at this time of year, it can be seen as an opportunity to change old habits. Every moment is a new opportunity to be different and choose to behave differently.
- Keep an eye on your exposure to sunlight. You could try walking to the shop or school during the day rather than taking the car. There is lots of advice online about how to deal with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
** See the following website for more information **
- Be a good sleeper. Studies have shown there is a link between sleep loss and depression. Make time to recover at night and create a calm environment for sleep. Your room can be a very important sanctuary.
- It’s good to remember that alcohol is a depressant. Binging on food and alcohol will inevitably bring your mood down, even on a good day. To look after your gut you could prepare for big gatherings and feasts by eating healthily before and after.
- Don’t forget YOURSELF! Practice self- awareness, ‘checking in’… and asking ‘What do I want to do?’, ‘what do I need right now?’.
… Be present. Do mindful walking; walking just for walking’s sake, not to or for anything I particular, and pay attention to your breathing. Find pockets of time to calm your mind however you like to do so… whether you swim in the morning or meditate before going to bed; listen to music which makes you feel calm; do yoga or any other physical activity which engages your mind. Make time for you. There is always time for you.
- Most importantly…ASK FOR HELP! …. Get professional or other support if you feel emotionally overwhelmed. It’s also great to ask people you trust to help you with practical tasks you don’t want to do on your own.
So, maybe Christmas can be a very important time to be aware of ourselves and how we are feeling, as there are triggers all around us. It can be a time to reach out for support and guidance, to claim back our freedom to choose, and to choose our own happiness – however that may look. I quickly stopped myself telling people our Christmas was going to be ‘quite unconventional’ this year, and how sad it is that my parents have separated, my brother has moved away, and we have no money – when I remembered there is NO REAL CONVENTION! .. and actually I feel quite proud that we as a family have spoken openly and created a Christmas plan that takes care of everybody – something we are not really looking forward to.
– There are many great resources to seek support, advice and someone to talk to. These people are ALWAYS there and waiting for your call, especially at a time like Christmas. See the link below for more information about each helpline: