Christmas can be a difficult time for people with mental health problems. Everyone seems to be happy and excited. Your routine is disrupted. You feel forced to participate in certain activities. It’s the perfect recipe for a turbulent time – even without the added complication of mental illness.
However, there are some strategies you can use to make the festive season run as smoothly as you can:
- Remember you have choices
People tend to use the phrases “it’s a tradition” or “it’s Christmas” to force others into doing things they don’t want to do, but you don’t have to agree. It can be hard to take a stand, for sure, but you need to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of all your options. If doing something will cause you more distress than standing your ground, don’t let yourself be swayed.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t be tactful or make compromises.
Look for ways to make things easier for you and anyone who might be hurt by your decision. For example, if you don’t feel able to spend all of Christmas Day with your family, explain that it will be stressful for both you and your family if you forced yourself to participate. Remind them that the options you face when you are mentally ill are not between having a great time with your family or a miserable time alone; it’s more likely to be between a distressing time with family or a subdued but bearable time alone.
Point out that you are not rejecting anyone personally. You would love to spend a day of joy with your loved ones, but if poor mental health prevents this, it’s not your fault – or theirs. Tell them how they can support you and your decision.
Perhaps you can prioritise certain aspects of Christmas and celebrate them with your family while opting out of doing everything. For example, join your family for lunch and opening presents, but spend time alone in your room or go for a walk when everyone else is playing board games or watching Christmas films. Again, explain that you believe this course of action will make things easier for everyone.
You are not being selfish by prioritising your mental health.
In fact, safeguarding your mental health shows love and respect for your family and friends, as well as yourself. Some people might not understand, but you need to put yourself first so that you can be a better partner/parent/child/sibling/friend. You are allowed to make your own decisions.
If people are upset by the choices you make, it’s not your responsibility (provided you are not wilfully hurting anyone, of course) and they have to deal with their own disappointment or anger. Maybe some people will blame you for their reactions, but you need to recognise that it’s not your fault they feel this way. Remember that even if a person has never been diagnosed with a mental illness, it doesn’t mean they handle their emotions in the best way – and certainly not 100% of the time.
- Curb unrealistic expectations
The last thing you need is to put more pressure on yourself, yet many of us fall into the trap of believing that Christmas can be perfect. You can’t expect your mental health problems to magically disappear just because it’s Christmas. Mental illness doesn’t care what time of year it is – and symptoms can be exacerbated by the activities and attitudes associated with Christmas.
A lot of the pressure we place on ourselves is unnecessary because we prioritise things which simply don’t matter. Finding the perfect present doesn’t matter – it’s the act of giving which shows you love the recipient. Cooking or buying a magnificent feast is unnecessary – as long as the food is edible and you are eating it with people you love, no one will care if it’s not Michelin star standard. It doesn’t even matter if Christmas day goes smoothly – the best stories involve things going wrong.
Lowering your expectations doesn’t mean Christmas can’t be joyful and magical. In fact, the best Christmases are often the ones we think will be boring or difficult.
I’m not saying you can’t be optimistic; just be realistic and acknowledge that perfection doesn’t exist. Especially not when you are spending a lot of time with family! There will be arguments and problems. Hopefully they will be trivial, like running out of wrapping paper or accusing your loved ones of cheating at Monopoly, but they will crop up.
The trick is to handle the problems as they arise, which is easier when you aren’t expecting perfection. Arguments don’t have to ruin the whole festive season, so don’t let them.
Don’t set yourself up for failure by trying to do too much in too little time. Your family and friends would rather you were less stressed than killing yourself trying to make individual place settings on Christmas Eve. Write a list of what you would like to do and prioritise the most important. Then whittle those down to the absolutely necessary.
Aim to do only what is absolutely necessary and do other stuff if you have time and find them enjoyable.
Your Christmas doesn’t have to look like an advertisement. Having all the tinsel and trimmings in place won’t guarantee happiness – in fact, the stress of doing so much will probably guarantee you will be miserable. Neither do you need to cram your festive season with parties and themed activities. Christmastime won’t automatically make you enjoy going out, especially if it’s not how you usually spend your time. If you would rather stay at home with a book, do it – I probably will!
Let your family and friends know how you feel. Being open might be difficult, but it reduces the risk of people making incorrect assumptions about you. For example, letting friends know you are turning down their invitations because you have anxiety prevents them from assuming you don’t want to spend time with them. They might not always understand, but there is more chance of them gaining understanding if you are honest and talk about what’s on your mind.
Being open and honest also means that other people might come up with solutions which you may not have considered. For instance, they might suggest you spend a quiet afternoon eating mince pies at their house, rather than going out on the town. Of course, it is also helpful if you can make alternative suggestions when declining invitations, even if it’s just saying you would like to see them when you feel better.
Think about how you communicate and what you say. Some people appreciate warts-and-all honesty, whereas others prefer not to know the details. Be diplomatic – it probably won’t help to tell someone you find them very annoying and that’s why you don’t want to go to their party! Try to empathise with the other person and think about how they would like you to express how you feel. For example, you might need to preface your main points with extra explanations if someone tends to be particularly sensitive.
Pick the right moment, too. The best time to tell your mother you feel anxious and overwhelmed is not when she is in the middle of cooking Christmas dinner. Try to find a time when the person you want to talk to isn’t busy or flustered. A relaxed environment helps and a neutral one, such as a café or during a walk in the countryside, is often better.
If it’s easier, communicate via phone or text message.
I know many people prefer to have serious conversations face to face, but if the alternative is that you don’t tell anyone how you feel, it’s best to communicate however you can. Pay attention to tone when writing written messages, as it can be difficult to convey. Err on the side of caution and make it obvious when you are being serious, when you are being more flippant, etc. Sarcasm is best avoided, since it’s easy to misread.
Finally, remember to keep communicating. Your mood, emotions and symptoms will fluctuate over the festive period, so keep those close to you informed. It doesn’t have to be a constant dialogue – just mention when you are feeling more anxious/isolated/depressed/irritated so that your family and friends can adapt.
Communication helps your family and friends help you. It tells them what to expect and how they might support you. Even if the effects aren’t what you expected, at least you have been proactive and tried to make things run smoothly – that’s all anyone can ask.
To read Part Two of Your Christmas Survival Guide, click here.
For Part Three of Your Christmas Survival Guide, click here.