Christmas – 2015

Well, it has been quite a year, and now Christmas now close. I wonder how you are feeling about it? I heard a client say today, “I’ll be glad when it’s over!” That can be due to the business and stress related to preparing for Christmas or ups and downs on the day. Or it can be because Christmas triggers uncomfortable emotions. So what if, rather than feeling joyful, you are grieving, feeling sad or worried at Christmas? Then it can be a really difficult and challenging time. There will be many individuals with different struggles around Christmas, and so it is good to think about some ways to manage over this time.

We experience various emotions, including sadness and depression. Our emotions are not always set at ‘happy’, and life events can trigger sadness or depression. In the event of depressed mood, it is important to seek some expert help, to identify whether it has been triggered by recent events, or is due to an underlying depressive illness. The symptoms of depression can include emotional symptoms (depression, anxiety, guilt, irritability, anger, inability to experience pleasure); behavioural symptoms (agitation, crying); attitudes towards self and the world – self-criticism, low self-belief, feelings of hopelessness, pessimism); cognitive symptoms (impaired thinking or concentration); or bodily symptoms (loss of appetite, sleep disturbance, low energy or libido. If you are concerned, help can be sought from your GP in the first instance, or the Beyondblue support service 1300224636.

A common cause of depressed mood and anxiety is perfectionism, and Christmas can bring this out! Perfectionism refers to wanting to do things extremely well, and it can result in the person putting pressure on themselves to meet high standards. Perfectionism can be viewed as a ‘friend’, helping you to do a good job and be productive, or it can be viewed as a ‘foe’, as it is really an illusion (perfection is not actually possible!). It can lead to self-critical thinking, and perfectionists may define their self-worth by how well they perform. So let perfectionism work for you and not against you, by being aware of your expectations, and whether they are realistic. At this time of year, go easy on yourself and set some limits on what you are aiming to achieve. Can you delegate any tasks or drop some? What is the worst that can happen? The answer is not terribly much! Can you find some time to relax and be in the moment, so that you get some enjoyment from Christmas too?

Here are some strategies for dealing with sadness, depression or worry at this time of year:

  • Do you value the spirit of giving or caring at Christmas? Get in touch with your values (what is important to you) and put them into practice.
  • Use your inner strengths and resources – you have many and they can help you overcome challenging time.
  • Connect with people for support and kindness.
  • Be mindful or in the moment – sadness often relates to thinking about the past, so pay attention in the now, to what is around you, to children’s faces and laughing, to the sunshine, and you will feel calmer and enjoy the moment more.
  • Practise self-care, that is, make sure you get enough sleep, eat well and do some  exercise, even if just a few minutes a day.
  • Challenge unhelpful or negative thinking, and work on more optimistic thinking.
  • Learn to be assertive and to say ‘no’. This can be very handy around Christmas. Practice in front of the mirror if this is difficult for you, and just repeat ‘no’ if someone doesn’t accept it the first time! If they are used to you always saying ‘yes’, it may take a little time for the to hear ‘no’.
  • Remember the value of activity and humour – have a smile when able to, and get involved in something (a jigsaw, colouring-in book, cooking, playing with kids).
  • Do more relaxing activities such as meditation, exercise or hobbies.
  • Foster hope and acceptance in your life.
  • Appreciate others and the world.
  • Practise kindness to others and especially yourself.

Loss and grief can also be a major issue at Christmas. Recently, or in previous years around this time, you might have lost a loved one or pet, or you may have experienced a non-death-related loss, such as divorce, loss of your job or health.  The loss and grief may also be related to not having a loving family around. Grief is the response to loss, and affects every aspect of yourself and your life, whether physical, emotional, behavioural, cognitive (such as memory and concentration), social or spiritual.

We are social beings, and we need to have interactions with other people. ‘Attachment’ between individuals develops to maintain a state of balance in life, and loss and grief disturbs this balance – people often describe a sense of their whole world being thrown upside down. There can be a roller-coaster of emotions, from sadness to numbness, anger, guilt or anxiety. If you experienced the loss in the past, you may think that you have gotten through these emotions, but Christmas can act as a trigger to them, and they can resurface. They may catch you by surprise at times.

Here are some ideas for managing loss and grief at Christmas:

  • Allow grief time each day (say 15 to 20 minutes) in which to talk or journal the loss, or to have a cry.
  • Attend to self-care, including relaxation, walking in nature or pampering.
  • Name the problems, which can then be problem-solved. But it is important to not make any major decisions in the first 12 months after a significant loss.
  • Identify the losses, and link mood with the loss. This can help you understand why your are experiencing a range of feelings.
  • Continuing existing relationships and seek support from a GP or therapist.
  • Use spiritual support if meaningful to you.
  • Explore and express your emotions, maybe through talking, writing a journal, or doing something creative or physical (running, gardening).
  • Get some advice on dealing with practical issues if need be.
  • Practice self-compassion, which means being kind to yourself, as you would be to others. Be patient with yourself and quit any self-criticism.

In the past, society talked about ‘moving on’ from grief and deceased loved ones. But a newer approach from Narrative Therapy is to ‘say hullo again’ to the person you are grieving. This involves incorporating what has been lost into the present, for example, holding on to the influence (or some other aspect) of that person that is meaningful. By ‘saying hullo again’ to the loved one, you can have an ongoing connection with that person, whilst still learning to live a life without them physically present. This can be especially helpful at Christmas; “If you were seeing Christmas through (their) eyes now, what would they be enjoying or wanting to see happen? What would (they) have said or done at Christmas? What traditions did they love, and how can you keep them going?”

Another useful technique for grief is the ‘memory box’ – any box or container can be used, and it can be decorated with various materials. Into the box you can place various items which trigger positive memories of the person who has died. These may include photographs, special cards, or small belongings. You can bring out the box whenever they want to connect with the loved one, as may be the case at Christmas. This can be a lovely activity for children to participate in.

Whether you are happy, sad, stressed or worried at Christmas, aim for peace within yourself by putting some of these ideas in to practice. Be compassionate towards yourself and others, and all the best in 2016!

Share your thoughts on this blog in the comments, we’d love to hear them! And have a look at Dr Cate’s facebook page for some inspiration over Christmas.

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