Dreading Christmas? These expert tips may help you cope

Are you feeling a deep sense of dread and doom for the upcoming festivities? Well, you’re not alone.

This time next week, it’ll be Christmas Day, and while some are counting down the sleeps, others aren’t so excited.

According to a recent study by Harvard Medical School, 62% of people experience higher stress levels during this time of year.

And for those with pre-existing mental health conditions, the holidays can become unbearably anxiety-inducing, with 64% claiming that Christmas makes their conditions worse, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness.

‘If we’ve already got too much on in our day-to-day lives, Christmas can sometimes feel like we have an extra part-time job,’ psychologist Wendy Dignan tells Metro.co.uk.

‘All of that pressure puts us into stress mode, and it makes us more susceptible to a sense of foreboding (a feeling that something bad will happen) because stress means that we are more susceptible to filtering in the negative stuff and filtering out the positive.’

This can lead to feelings of festive fatigue, especially as we head to the end of another long year compounded by the stress of the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis.

This impending sense of Christmas doom will inevitably be heightened for those navigating loss, struggling with their mental health, dealing with loneliness or trying to coordinate Christmas in a blended family.

This was the case for positive psychology coach and therapist Clare Deacon who found herself dealing with festive dread the Christmas after her husband passed away in 2016.

‘I had three young children, and having to navigate the season whilst grieving was a particularly difficult time,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.

Now Clare works to help others deal with grief, dread and anxiety.

‘The festive season is a very demanding time,’ she adds. 

‘There is a lot going on which can trigger feelings of dread and anxiety. These include financial pressures, social expectations, relationship pressures, and all the additional demands and expectations placed upon us.

‘The financial pressures around Christmas are huge, especially this year, at a time of recession and cost of living increases. The additional food bills, presents, hosting, and social activities all add to the cost.’

Clare also explains that the expectations of being sociable and having a jolly demeanour during this time of year can also be triggering. 

‘If you don’t demonstrate these behaviours, you can be labelled a grinch or told you lack Christmas cheer.

‘Also, if celebrations aren’t your thing, if you don’t embrace the festive spirit, then you can be excluded from social events, reinforcing feelings of not being good enough.

Over Christmas, there is also an increased demand for our time and energy as we have to fit in more tasks and take on more roles. 

Our lives become more challenging as we negotiate busy shops and crowded places.

‘You might also find that public spaces can become too overwhelming with all the noises, lights, smells and long queues,’ says Jay Riggs, a health and wellness expert from Zeal CBD tells Metro.co.uk.

This can throw you off your routine and make it more challenging to go about your normal day-to-day. 

‘The season also brings additional challenges with colder weather and shorter daylight hours, meaning our wellbeing is impacted with us getting less vitamin D and less contact with nature,’ says Clare.

Its also a time when relationships can be tested.

Clare says: ‘We are under increased pressure, and that build-up of emotion can result in us taking it out on those who are closest to us. 

‘And we are often expected to spend time with people who we don’t usually have contact with.’

Now that we have established that dreading Christmas is a common experience, what can we do about it?

How to cope with festive dread

Face the truth

‘Short-term relief can be found in avoidance,’ Clare explains. 

‘However, the consequence is that you are reinforcing the belief system that you are in danger, and that it’s a much better decision to avoid situations where you feel uncomfortable.’

It also means the next time you are faced with an uncomfortable scenario, your brain feels more justified in telling you to get out of there.

‘But what you really need to do is process the emotion, to understand the belief system that triggers feelings of anxiety,’ warns Clare.

Clare’s top tips for dealing with festive dread:

1. When these feelings arise – acknowledge them, and understand what they are telling you so you can find the reassurance you need.

2. Increase your self-care at this time of year. We all need a little more love and attention.

3. Decide what is important to you this festive season and establish your boundaries accordingly.

4. Be prepared for situations where you are aware you may be triggered.

5. Prioritise your schedule, so you avoid overwhelm and burnout.

6. Reach out for support, delegate, and, importantly accept help!

7. Give yourself permission to say no.

‘Many people can feel isolated and overwhelmed at Christmas time, and its important that if someone is feeling like this to know they are not alone,’ adds Clare.

Get rid of the pressure

It’s ok if you haven’t got the best-decorated house in the neighbourhood, if you use frozen Yorkshires instead of making them from scratch, or if your home isn’t dusted in time for a visit from the in-laws. That’s life.

‘If something is not bringing you the Christmas spirit of joy, challenge whether its benefits outweigh the costs to your mental health,’ says Chartered Psychologist Dr Meg Arroll.

Prioritise time for yourself  

‘With work Christmas parties and festive family gatherings soon in full swing, it can be quite difficult to make time for yourself,’ says Martin Preston, Founder and Chief Executive at Private Rehab Clinic Delamere.

‘As lovely as catching up with friends and family can be, constantly being surrounded by people may lead to feeling socially drained – especially if they’ve got any personal issues they are dealing with. 

‘Therefore, it is important to strike a balance and ensure you are still allocating yourself some solid “me time” in the midst of all the festive fun.’

Take time out from social media 

During the festive season, it’s common for people to post about what they’re up to. 

‘For individuals that are spending Christmas alone, or perhaps mourning the loss of a relative, seeing the upbeat festive content of others can be especially difficult,’ Martin explains.

‘What’s more, many fall into the habit of making comparisons through what they see on social media, and this leads to people not appreciating what they do have. 

‘With this in mind, taking a break from social media over Christmas may do wonders for your wellbeing.’

Keep active 

‘Due to shorter days and dark nights, it can be difficult to find the motivation to stay active,’ says Martin.

‘However, keeping fit is very important, especially if you tend to struggle with your mental health over the festive period. 

‘Even something as little as going out for a walk in the fresh air every day will make you feel better.’

Talk to loved ones

If the festive season is especially tough for you, make sure your friends and family are aware of this. 

Martin suggests informing loved ones of certain triggers that have a negative impact on your mental health, so they can try their best to help you avoid them.

He adds: ‘By simply voicing your concerns, you’ll find that such a weight will be lifted, making you feel like you aren’t struggling alone.’

Take things slowly

Christmas can be a very busy time of year, but if you need to slow things down and take a break from all the parties, drinking, shopping or even socialising, then don’t feel bad about it, says Jay.

‘Your friends and family will understand if you need some alone time. 

‘But make sure you don’t isolate yourself either. If you need to speak to someone, find a close friend you can trust or even a therapist. Just do whatever you need to,’ he adds.

Get help

If these feelings of dread become too much, it may be beneficial to see your GP for a referral to talking therapies.

Need support?

For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.

If you’re a young person, or concerned about a young person, you can also contact PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide UK. Their HOPELINK digital support platform is open 24/7, or you can call 0800 068 4141, text 07860039967 or email: [email protected] between the hours of 9am and midnight.

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