The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year?
For some of us, Christmas is not the most wonderful time of the year, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
When we feel like we don’t want to participate, participation rocks up anyway, and gets right up in our faces.
Christmas is just inescapable. It’s everywhere. Christmas adverts on the telly, music in the shops, festive lights in the streets, happy couples strolling arm-in-arm sipping their Eggnog Lattes, you know the drill.
Feeling depressed is never easy at any time of the year but never more so than during the Christmas period when it positively feels like depression is ACTUALLY ILLEGAL.
But feeling depressed at Christmas is not only understandable, it’s extremely common, and that’s because the festive period brings a particular combination of different challenges that can leave us feeling like the last thing we want to do is to celebrate.
For a start, there is less sunshine at this time of year, so Vitamin D and serotonin levels are affected which in turn have a detrimental effect on our mood and sleep.
The high expectations of Christmas can lead to financial worries, family conflict, overwhelming commitments or, conversely, we may find ourselves feeling quite lonely with no family, and with friends otherwise engaged. All of this can leave us feeling isolated, vulnerable, depressed and anxious at a time when we feel we are supposed to be at our most happy.
Added to all of this, we have brains which can mistakenly work against us to further exacerbate a difficult festive period.
The primitive part of our brain known as the amygdala is concerned with our survival. It can only operate within the parameters of depression, anxiety and anger, or a combination of all three. If we have experienced trauma or upset during a previous festive period, a clear neural pathway will have been created. All the constant Christmas cues that the festive period presents cause our amygdala to ‘pattern-match’ to earlier Christmas times, and recreate the previous feelings and behaviour even though they may be neither helpful or appropriate.
Similarly, there can be a kind of regression that can take place if we return to the childhood home for Christmas. We might find ourselves staying in our old bedroom, laughing with siblings, being cooked and cared for by our parents again, and this too provides a ‘pattern-match’ for the amygdala which can mean our brains revert to the old behaviours and feelings from when we were in that context previously.
Aside from that, we can negatively forecast (‘Christmas is going to be a disaster’) and negatively retrospect (‘Christmas was awful last year’) and it’s worth noting that when we focus on the problem in this way, solutions to coping tend to drop away.
The truth is that Christmas sucks for many of us. The homeless, the bereaved, those living in poverty, and the millions of us suffering from depression and anxiety.
But it is possible to feel ok. It is possible to change our thinking around Christmas, and to make the period feel manageable and even enjoyable again.
To start with, our brains like to have a direct instruction. Rather than tell yourself not to be depressed, or to ‘cheer up’, instead try working on visualising a clear picture of what you would look like and what you’d be doing if you were coping better with Christmas. By doing this you are building a new, more positive neural pathway, and giving your brain a new visual to ‘pattern-match’ to.
Clients who are struggling on the approach to Christmas and come to see us for Solution Focused Hypnotherapy are asked to describe, in as much detail as possible, how the occasion would be different if the dread/sadness had miraculously disappeared. Just the process of imagining the difference is enough to shut the amygdala down for a while and open the brain up to the idea that a different Christmas is a real possibility.
Here below are a few other things for you to try. Above all, start with the decision that you can change your feelings about Christmas, and that a positive, restful break is entirely achievable.
· Plan Ahead. Start now. Think about how you can best take care of yourself over the holiday time. Consider what basic things keep you happy and make them a priority. Schedule them in if necessary.
· Change Expectations. You have a choice. You can change Christmas in order to meet your needs. It’s OK to say ‘no’ to things you’ve previously agreed to if it means you’ll be happier.
· Make Sleep a Priority. This may be harder than usual during Christmas, but sleep is crucial to your mental well being and so it needs to remain a priority.
· Don’t Overdo It. Try not to binge on food or alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant, and drinking alters the delicate balance of chemicals in our brains. Similarly, overeating can lead to feelings of guilt and negativity.
· Avoid Family Conflict. You don’t have to engage in arguments. If conflict arises, you can suggest that they’re dealt with at another time and, if necessary, leave the room to take a breather until you feel calm enough to return.
· Meditate. Slow down your breathing, use a guided relaxation, or try some Solution Focused Hypnotherapy which works quickly to focus on where you are now, where you want to be and help you identify small, manageable steps to get you there.
· Find Virtual Friends. If you know that Christmas is likely to be a lonely time, start googling now and find out what help is out there. The comedian Sarah Millican helps bring those alone some company by hosting a #joinin hashtag on Twitter on Christmas Day.
· Reach Out. Support is always available. The Samaritans operate 365 days a year and are contactable on 116 123.
Wishing you a happy Christmas.
Lucy Baxter is a qualified Solutions Focused Clinical Hypnotherapist and co-founder of Blue Sky Hypnotherapy
Lucy Baxter DipSFH, AfSFH-reg, SFBT(Hyp), MNCP and Emma Wilde DipSFH, AfSFH-reg, SFBT(Hyp), MNCP