Image: Getty

What to do if you’re sad at Christmas

For a lot of people, there’s not much joy to be found at Christmas. Emily Writes spoke to Dr Sarah Bell-Booth and Gwendoline Smith about how to deal with the hard stuff in the face of all that relentless holiday cheer.

Despite my anxiety, I generally enjoy Christmas now that I can do it on my own terms. I spent a few Christmases desperately trying to please people, and now I just recognise that our whānau Christmases are far more enjoyable if we all just relax. After a stressful year we are definitely doing that so we can be ready for whatever 2020 brings.

So, in all likelihood I’m going to be happy this Christmas, but that hasn’t always been the case. Grief over deaths in our whānau, Christmases spent in hospital, asshole relatives, anxiety over travelling long distances – I’ve had my fair share of shit holiday times.

So I wanted to talk to some folks who know how to deal with the hard stuff at Christmas. It’s a universal truth that heaps of people feel sad at Christmas. And why wouldn’t they? The holidays are a time for forced happiness and that just makes some of us feel more sad, because we’re pretending. There are crowds everywhere, which is hard if you have sensory issues or your children do. There’s often a big cost involved – food, presents, transport, and it doesn’t matter how many times you tell that one relative you’re not doing presents this year, they’ll insist on doing it, and you’ll feel stink. For some, the financial burden can mean having to choose between presents for the kids or paying bills in January and February.

For many of us, the only positive on 25 December is the weather, and we can’t even count on that.

Please note, depression is a very different thing to feeling blue at Christmas. You can self-test for anxiety and depression here, to see if there’s something bigger at play. Please talk to your GP or call or text 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor. If it’s seasonal or Christmas sadness, these tips might help.

Remember you’re not alone

According to the Mental Health Foundation, over a quarter of all New Zealanders – 29 percent – feel added financial and social stresses during the festive season. Loneliness can also hit, especially if you’re away from your family. Clinical psychologist and author Dr Sarah Bell-Booth says it’s no surprise that people feel emotional when you combine financial strain, work deadline pressure before the holiday period and difficult family dynamics on top of daily stressors, health concerns or relationship problems. “Christmas can also be a significant trigger for those grieving, those estranged from family, and those who face infertility or have had recent miscarriages. In addition, those experiencing mental illness such as depression or social anxiety may struggle with the exposure to social events. At this time of year, we can’t assume what others are thinking and feeling. A brave face may hide a world of pain and stress.”

Gwendoline Smith, aka Dr Know, psychologist, speaker and author of The Book of Knowing, says loneliness is a serious issue at Christmas. “I believe it is the most significant cause of sadness at this time of the year. People imagine that everybody else is exceptionally happy and spending wonderful loving moment with their family. People can be sad at anytime of the year and it’s not an ideal mood state, the pressure at this time of year accentuates it,” she says.

Allow yourself space to feel sad

Bell-Booth says validating your feelings is important for addressing them. “It’s important to identify your vulnerability factors and triggers to help you be more understanding of your emotions. If this is difficult or complex, talk to a trusted support person. Respecting where you are at with your mood and anxiety and where you sit on the introversion-extroversion continuum is vital. You may have the desire is to avoid Christmas engagements altogether in a black and white manner. This desire might be due to unhelpful thinking patterns associated with depression or anxiety. In this situation, you may consider the technique “opposite action”. This involves feeling uncomfortable but doing it anyway (in a self-compassionate way) paired with support, relaxation and rewards afterwards. Specifically, this may look like setting small goals with limits and boundaries. If you need time alone to re-energise after busy social gatherings, prioritise and plan for it. ‘Short and sweet’ may be your motto during Christmas.”

Keep your expectations in check

Bell-Booth suggests watching out for unhelpful “should” statements in your thinking. “Expectations need to be realistic and based on your current demands and mental state,” she says. “If you feel demotivated, this is a clue that your expectations are set too high. Christmas is not a competition to please and impress others. It is also not the ideal time to strive for personal bests or a personal sense of achievement, gained from stretching yourself too far.”

“Muting social media can help you to get over that grass-is-greener feeling. Remember nostalgia is a powerful drug. We might idolise the Christmases of our childhood but they weren’t perfect and you don’t have to be perfect either.”

Simplify everything!

Try not to overcommit and rush, especially if you have kids. “Others should understand. If not, perhaps some empathy training is a necessary gift for them,” Bell-Booth says.

Helping others can contribute to your own wellbeing. “Two lovely techniques to have a happy Christmas is gratitude and altruism,” says Dr Sarah Bell-Booth (Photo: Auckland City Mission, Christmas 2017. Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Give purpose to your holidays 

Christmas is a brutal time when you’re living below the poverty line. A survey from the Salvation Army found one in five Kiwis say they can’t afford to celebrate Christmas. The Tindall Foundation says from July to September this year, more than 10,000 people needed help with food parcels alone – an 8% increase on the same time last year — and Christmas is expected to be even busier. Poverty doesn’t stop at Christmas. If you have any means to help, that’s where you should put your energies.

“Two lovely techniques to have a happy Christmas is gratitude and altruism,” Dr Bell-Booth says. “These involve acknowledging what you are grateful for and engaging in random acts of kindness. These acts of kindness can help to improve your mood through a sense of purpose and meaning. Research shows that meaningful activity such as voluntarily helping others can release serotonin in your brain, which is associated with life satisfaction and happiness. If you have kids, these are essential skills to instil. For example, your advent calendar could include little tasks such as picking flowers for a neighbour, ringing a distant family member, giving food/toys to charity, or putting a thank you note in someone’s letterbox.”

Find your own family 

Connection is vital at Christmas. Gwendoline Smith suggests spending it with your chosen family if the one you were born into causes you distress. “Being with your friends, having a laugh is a good remedy,” she says. Bell-Booth agrees. “Connection with others is highly correlated with happiness. Social connection helps to release oxytocin and dopamine in your brain. Check on others you may think are isolated. Involve them in any small but significant way. The benefits are astounding even if you are basically strangers.”

“If you are the one who feels lonely, perhaps make a plan of how you can gradually move towards becoming connected or even just in the company of others. It’s understandable that you feel vulnerable during this process. It will be worthwhile though. Check out local community events and groups available – there are many others who feel isolated too. You’re not alone.”

Ask for help

You matter. Please don’t hurt yourself this Christmas, you are needed in this world. Ask for help, please. Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor. Call Lifeline 0800 543 354 or (09) 522 2999 or free text 4357 (HELP). Youthline is also open during Christmas 0800 376 633, as are Samaritans 0800 726 666.

If you’re in danger right now, call 111 or go to your nearest hospital emergency department (ED). Call a friend or family member. Please seek help. If you’re worried about someone this Christmas, check out these resources from the Mental Health Foundation. Always take people seriously when they say they need help.

If you’re heading into a happy Christmas make sure you take others along with you. Compassion and empathy are the only way some folks can get through the season so be kind, it’s the best gift you can give.


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