For some people, the festive period is the most exciting time of the year. As soon as the Christmas music begins playing on the radio and in coffee shops up and down the country, they’re in their element – nothing can bring them down.
In fact, thanks to the bright decorations, cheerful carols and celebratory atmosphere, there’s a certain pressure for everyone to feel that way. In any typical Christmas scene, there’s always a happy family snuggled around a Christmas tree or laughing at the dinner table, unaffected by the cold weather outside. The whole essence of Christmas is one big message to smile – and there’s a stigma towards anyone who may not be in the most jovial of spirits.
But despite our best wishes for everyone to be at their happiest during the festive season, life just doesn’t work that way. Depression, low mood and other mental health conditions don’t just magically disappear as soon as the tinsel gets cracked out – and the pressure to “cheer up” and “be jolly” can actually worsen symptoms.
Indeed, when everyone one around you is having the time of their lives, it can be particularly isolating to feel differently, even without the added pressure to join in. And the guilt many people dealing with low mood and depression feel over their “right” to be sad is only further exacerbated when friends and family members are telling them to be happy.
“Mental illness doesn’t just vanish because of a day in the calendar, and we shouldn’t feel guilty about feeling sad whatever the season,” Jo Love, a mental health advocate and director of the Speakers Collective, tells Stylist. “Everywhere we look there is enormous added pressure on all of us to have a ‘picture perfect’ Christmas. We are bombarded with the image of the ideal Christmas everywhere we look, from adverts on TV, to the so-called ‘reality’ our social media feeds. The images we see are often vastly different to our own realities and this disparity can easily make us feel as if we’ve failed and seriously affect our mood.”
Another big reason why people might experience worsened low mood or depression during the Christmas period is, as Love points out, the disparity between what we expect Christmas to be and what it actually is. For people who are feeling particularly lonely, the image of a ‘perfect Christmas’ with friends and family may make them feel even more alone.
And these feelings may be more widespread than you’d expect; according to research from the mental health charity Mind, one in three people are too embarrassed to admit they feel down and lonely at Christmas, with one in five people feeling like they have nowhere to turn for support.
“It’s very difficult for somebody who struggles at Christmas to get away from it,” explains Alexandra Lichtenfeld, a Samaritans volunteer and business mentor at Client Matters. “It’s everywhere and we are all expected to embrace it. And while we can’t escape it per se, there are some boundaries we can put in place to protect ourselves when it all gets a bit too much for us.”
While if you are experiencing persistent feelings of low mood or depression it is advised you visit your GP to seek help and explore your treatment options, there are a few simple steps you can take to manage your mental health and cope during the Christmas season. From staying away from social media to engaging with your local community, here are some methods to help you cope with low mood at Christmas.
1. Nail the basics
As obvious as it may sound, making sure you’re taking care of yourself during the festive season is incredibly important. If you’re travelling at Christmas and staying at a friend’s or family member’s house, keep in mind that your routine may be disrupted, and try to minimise that bump as much as you can.
For example, if your usual self-care routine for when you’re feeling particularly low involves taking yourself away and watching Netflix for a bit, you need to make sure you allow yourself to do those things if you need to, even when you’re away from home. It’s essential to prioritise the things that make you feel better – just because it’s Christmas, doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice the routine you’ve put in place to manage your mental health.
The same goes for the real basics, such as getting enough sleep, eating the right meals and monitoring how much you’re drinking.
“As boring as it sounds, when we are struggling with our mental health the basics are vitally important for recovery,” Love says. “Make sure you get enough sleep; you’re drinking enough water and eating three proper meals a day. Set yourself small challenges, like getting up, showered, dressed, all of which sound simple but can be enormously difficult when suffering with depression, and make sure you celebrate those tiny victories too.”
She continues: “We spend so much of our time, effort and energy over the Christmas period making sure everyone else is having a good time, it is important to carve out a little bit of time for yourself.
“Start small; it could be as simple as a couple of hours on the sofa with Netflix and a Chocolate Orange. And as much as you can, ignore the social and commercial pressure to celebrate in a certain way and concentrate on what the season means to you.”
2. Talk it out
When you’re feeling low and depressed during the Christmas season, it’s more important than ever to talk to those around you about what you’re going through. Instead of hiding yourself away and avoiding friends and family, try to reach out, help them to understand what you’re going through and lean on them for support.
Helplines such as the Samaritans (116 123) can provide free emotional support for anyone going through a difficult time, and their phone lines are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“Perhaps the single most important thing we all need to have at Christmas is somebody to talk to,” explains Lichtenfeld. “Find yourself somebody to confide in and discuss the challenges Christmas presents you with. In my role as a Samaritans volunteer, I come across so many people who don’t have anybody to talk to and if that’s you, the service is absolutely there to help.”
Love agrees. “Admitting you’re feeling low is a huge step and shouldn’t be underestimated, but sometimes it can be really hard to share your feelings, particularly with those closest to you who might not understand.
“Sometimes those slightly on the outside of the family unit such as cousins or close friends can feel easier to approach, especially if there is someone who has been open about their own feelings in the past. However, at times it can be easier to chat to a stranger and there are many brilliant helplines open over the Christmas period.”
There are a range of services and organisations available to you should you need them over Christmas. For more information, please click here.
3. Stay away from social media
Social media can be damaging for our mental health at the best of times, so during the festive period – when people are sharing highlights of their ‘perfect Christmas’ – it’s best to stay away.
“Limit your use of social media as everyone else always seem to be having more fun than you,” advises Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan. “Sites such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat can have a direct negative impact on feelings of loneliness, anxiety and low mood. In fact, studies have shown the more time people spend on Facebook, the lonelier and more dissatisfied they become with their own life. On the other hand, people who limited their use of social media to 10 minutes per platform, per day, experienced significant reductions in loneliness and depression over a three week period than those who continued using social media as normal.”
Lichtenfeld agrees. “If seeing everybody having ‘so much perfect fun’ on social media causes your anxiety to go through the roof, have a social media detox for a few weeks and give yourself permission to switch off.”
4. Do something different
Getting out of the house and doing something different can be a great way to distract yourself from the pressure of the Christmas period. While it can be hard for people dealing with depression to get out and about for a number of reasons, if you’re able to do so, getting involved with community projects and activities can be a great way to give yourself something to focus on over the Christmas period.
“Don’t hide away, however much you want to,” says Dr Brewer. “Volunteer for local charities. Accept invitations, arrange to meet up with family and friends, join social and activity clubs to meet new people. Smile and you will attract positive vibes from others – many of whom probably feel just like you do inside.”
Charities such as Crisis recruit volunteers to help provide their services over the Christmas period – for more information, click here.
Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at email@example.com.
Mind also provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. You can find more information on their website.
In a crisis, call 999.
Main image: Erin Aniker
Other images: Getty