For me, possibly one of the most infuriating phrases ever to be uttered, and yet, one that seems to crop up every December is: “How can you be sad? It’s Christmas!”
Most people who live with a mental health condition will tell you that feeling anxious or depressed is no more of a choice than having a headache or diarrhoea! Yet, over the Christmas period in particular, it’s easy for family and friends to forget this and to presume that you can suddenly force yourself to feel better.
I live with social anxiety and I’m an introvert, so being around lots of people for extended periods of time is draining. Suddenly the energy levels required jump from three to ten and there is pressure to be constantly ‘on’, even if entertaining others is not something that comes naturally.
I’m not big on Christmas jumpers, (so overdone), Secret Santa or office parties. The very thought of arriving at social events sends my anxiety into overdrive. That awkward first five minutes when you as the newest guest becomes the centre of attention and are required to smile until your face cracks? No thank you.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a moody cow who wants to sit alone in a corner with a book. Okay, okay – I totally am and I certainly do. But I try to compromise, so usually I just need 15 minutes or so of ‘down time’ to recharge.
I’m fortunate enough to have a supportive family who understand that I can find Christmas overwhelming at times. So when I’m at home, I’ll simply go upstairs and have a lie down for a while and listen to some music or just be quiet. Yet, if we’re visiting extended family or my husband’s family, then disappearing isn’t an option.
And that’s when the trouble starts.
I retreat into myself and try to suppress everything until all of my anxiety explodes in an emotional outburst. (I usually blame it on alcohol, but in truth, that’s rarely the case.)
My anxiety flares up and my mood plummets in response.
So, here’s a message for all my anxiety warriors out there:
IT’S OK NOT TO FEEL HAPPY OR RELAXED AT CHRISTMAS.
It doesn’t make you a bad person, a scrooge or indeed selfish. You’re human. In fact, many people find the festive season stressful and emotionally taxing. Try to find a way to enjoy the time in a way that suits you. I do this by being prepared. A few years ago, I made a list of the things that I like about Christmas. They are:
- Spending time with my family and relaxing.
- Chasing my mum around the kitchen, trying to convince her that dinner will be fine, whilst topping up her wine glass.
- Wearing my pyjamas for as long as possible.
- FOOD. For a few days of the year it’s perfectly acceptable to consume more calories than a body builder!
- Playing board games, I love board games!
- Watching films back-to-back.
- Wrapping up warm and going on nice long walks with Rigby (my dog) and my husband.
If like me, you find Christmas tricky then why not take some steps to make yourself more comfortable this year?
Top tips to manage Christmas when you live with anxiety
Be honest with those closest to you
Talk to the people in your life and tell them what’s going on. E.g. “I might not seem happy all of the time over the holidays because of my condition, but I still want to be here. So, if you could be patient with me that would mean so much.” I also remind people that I might need ten minutes to myself during large gatherings.
It doesn’t have to be anything too strenuous. I like to go on daily walks to burn off extra adrenaline and clear my head.
It’s okay to say NO
You don’t have to attend every event or activity that you’re invited to. You wouldn’t agree to run a marathon with a broken leg, so don’t agree to social events that you know will exhaust you. Being selective isn’t selfish, it’s sensible.
Be mindful when drinking alcohol
Although a few drinks at Christmas can be good fun, be aware that alcohol changes certain chemicals in your brain and can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and depression. Be mindful of your limits and make sure to drink a glass of water for every alcoholic beverage you have.
Pursue hobbies that help distract you
I enjoy hobbies that sooth my brain when it gets overstimulated. It can be a jigsaw puzzle or crossword or simply reading a book or listening to music. At the moment I’m obsessed with knitting.
Practice makes perfect!
If like me, you struggle initially in social situations, then practice a few conversation starters in advance, such as: “How are things at work?” Or, “Do you have any holidays planned for next year?” There’s no shame in it and it can really take the pressure off.
Here’s to a merry and stress free festive season!
Changes chemicals in your brain – Drinkaware. (2017). ‘Alcohol and Anxiety’. https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/mental-health/alcohol-and-anxiety/
UK/MED/19/0315 December 2019