The common themes around the holiday season are those of family, love, hope and happiness, with Christmas widely referred to as "the most wonderful time of year." So, what happens when the festive period is one of conflict, stress or sadness? How do you survive the holiday season when you're struggling to find the joy that everyone associates with this time of year?
It's actually not uncommon for people to struggle with the heavy combination of holiday preparation, financial strain, added pressures, and complicated family dynamics that can come with this time of year. These things add to the already high expectations of how Christmas and families should be, and under that kind of weight, it can be hard not to feel incredibly overwhelmed and un-joyous.
From navigating family difficulties, to coping with loss, grief, anxiety and depression, here are some tips on how to cope if you're struggling this Christmas.
Tips for coping with anxiety and depression
For some, it's a mild case of the holiday-blues, while for others, Christmas can be a time of intense emotion and overwhelming stress. This can be especially true for those struggling with their mental health, as the symptoms of depression and anxiety can often be exacerbated during the festive season.
Feel what you need to feel
You don't have to pretend to feel a certain way - in fact, doing so can make you feel worse. If you need to cry or be alone at times, that is okay. Prioritise your mental and emotional well-being.
Stick to routine
The fast-paced routine and changes to our daily schedule can sometimes be very overwhelming. Limit unwanted stress and anxiety by sticking to your usual routine as much as you can.
Take time to pause
If you feel yourself struggling or becoming stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, listen to your body and take a moment to pause and rest.
Share the load
The holiday season often means extra work, longer to-do lists and an increased mental load. Shopping, cooking, cleaning and organising - it can all get overwhelming, but you don't have to do all the Christmas preparation alone. The best way to lighten the load is to share it. Ask for help from your loved ones and be specific in your requests and what you need.
Tips for navigating family difficulties
This can be made even more difficult for those who have experienced a hard childhood, have a strained relationship with family members, or have experienced trauma or abuse within their families. The thought of Christmas and being in forced proximity to family can quite easily trigger feelings of dread and not-so-merry memories.
Set personal boundaries
It's inevitable that during gatherings with extended family members, you will come into contact with people who might distress you or pressure you with their expectations. Setting boundaries will help you to protect your peace. It's okay to say "no", to excuse yourself from conversations that make you uncomfortable, and to decline to answer questions that you don't want to answer. For example, telling family members that you don't want to discuss your relationship, or if and when you will get married and have children.
Set family boundaries
Much like personal boundaries, family boundaries help to protect the peace between loved ones. Let extended family know your family values and boundaries, and be prepared to remind them if they breach what you have stated. For example, telling them that you don't prompt your kids to hug and kiss family members in exchange for presents.
Plan ahead and have an exit strategy
It's okay to set a time limit on the amount of time you spend attending events and gatherings. Partially attending or having an exit strategy in place can also help to take some of the pressure off. For example, pre-communicating with your in laws that you'll only be able to attend for a few hours, then reminding them of that when the time comes to excuse yourself.
Keep realistic expectations
Planning a 'perfect' Christmas isn't attainable, because as humans, we aren't perfect. Keep expectations and plans realistic to avoid disappointment, and remember that your time and attention are the best gifts you can give your child.
Take breaks and have a stress-relief plan
No matter what we do, sometimes being around certain people is just stressful. Instead of trying to avoid it, sometimes the best thing we can do is plan for it. When you feel overwhelmed, politely excuse yourself and implement a stress relief plan. This could be taking a quick walk to get some fresh air, listening to a playlist, practicing mindfulness, or doing a grounding or breathing exercise.
Do your own thing
No one says that you have to spend this time of year with family. If that's what makes this time of year difficult for you, give yourself permission to do your own thing. Create your own memories and traditions - either alone, with friends, or surrounded by people who are good for your mental and emotional well-being.
Tips for navigating loss and grief
For anyone who has experienced loss or trauma, Christmas might be less a time of joy, and more one of overwhelming grief. Mourning the death of a loved one, or the loss of a relationship, can make this time of year feel incredibly isolating and lonely.
Honour your journey
Everyone's healing journey is different, and that is okay. You don't have to do the things that you're finding hard - writing cards, decorating the tree, going to parties - it's alright to let these things go until you feel ready.
Allow yourself to grieve
It's normal to experience heightened grief on the days leading up to Christmas or any other big calendar event. Seeing other couples and families together will hurt. It will be hard to look at the empty seat at the table. It's alright to cry, to feel hurt, mad, sad, lonely or whatever else you may be feeling.
Lean on your loved ones for support
It's okay to let people know that you're finding it hard to live without the person you've lost. You don't have to bottle up your feelings or struggle in silence. Confiding in a loved one can give you a safe place to talk about your feelings and give you support while you process your grief.
Find a special way to remember your loved one
Remembering and honouring the special person that you lost can be a beautiful way to incorporate them in your Christmas traditions, even though they are no longer physically with you. Maybe you can light a candle for them on Christmas Day, place a special ornament for them on the tree, or donate to a charity in their name.
Whatever makes Christmas a difficult time for you, know that you are not alone. If you are having a hard time dealing with heavy emotions and negative thought patterns, there is help available. You don't ever have to struggle in silence or carry the weight alone. Please reach out to your GP, a mental health professional, or one of the below 24-hour crisis support services.
Emergency - 000
Lifeline - 13 11 14
1800 RESPECT - 1800 737 732
Kids Helpline - 1800 55 1800
Mensline - 1300 789 978
QLife - 1800 184 527 (3pm - midnight)