The Christmas season is widely recognised by mental health professionals as a time of high incidence of depression and the expression of this, including self-harm.
- THE AUSTRALIAN
It’s the most cheerful time of the year. Big, beaming smiles on the television, lots of jingling bells and happy music and jolly Santas. But the Christmas-New Year period is also a very dangerous time — not just for motorists but for anyone experiencing loss or grief.
Because of the excessive emphasis on peace on Earth, joy and family — not to mention the stress on finances — those who are not in a great place can find themselves in the grip of depression or anxiety. It is widely recognised by mental health professionals as a time of high incidence of depression and the expression of this, including with self- harm.
There’s even a name for it: Holiday Depression Syndrome. This includes Chinese New Year, Greek Easter, Passover, Valentine’s Day … the gamut of enforced happy times. Psychology Today reports that 45 per cent of those surveyed said they dreaded the “festive” season.
That’s because many of us set ourselves up for disappointment and sadness by fantasising about the “good old days” rather than being fully engaged in the present. We also expect too much of ourselves compared with others.
US-based psychotherapist and social worker Maud Purcell is not impressed by what she calls “the pressure to feel merry”. She says the disparity between how you really feel and what you think you are supposed to feel can cause guilt and confusion. Many people suffer from remembrances of holidays past or of people now past, and from the pressure to spend. There can also be heightened feelings of isolation and rejection.
Steve Stokes, program director at South Pacific Private in Sydney, a leading facility treating depression and addiction, says the festive season isn’t festive for everyone. For some it can trigger anxiety or depression because of being bombarded with images presenting the stereotypical happy family with Christmas gifts, a fancy house bedecked in lights, everyone getting along and a table full of food. He says we need to reach out to those suffering, not taunt them with what they haven’t got.
Writer Dom Joly made me laugh with his comment in the Independent newspaper: “I loathe being told what to do — and that includes having to have a fabulous, wonderful, family time.” He laments the lack of spontaneity at this time of year and the anxiety of having to emulate Nigella Lawson with her stuffed turkey.
For many it’s depressing and stressful to have to go into busy, loud shopping malls. Then there is envy: it’s difficult to deal with the fact that everyone you know is going away to somewhere exotic or fun (my close girlfriend is in Panama); and you’re stuck at home attending to the dreaded To-Do list: fixing the leaking tap or finally getting the cat vaccinated. And where have all those fantastic New Year’s Eve parties gone? Others watch things they want to purchase drift by. It’s great having sales but for those who aren’t in a great financial situation, sales mean nothing. And of course the commercialisation of giving gifts creates guilt and shame.
More important is the fact that many people have broken hearts and feel unloved. One friend who was left by her partner admitted that watching all the lovey-dovey people over the holiday season was like “knives in the gut”. And if you aren’t broken up before the silly season, you might be by the end. It’s a time of hissy-fits between couples buying gifts: “You always … you never … Oh, here you go again … why don’t you ever … It’s always what you want …”
Dealing with death is one of the hardest things at this time of year — looking across the Christmas table to where a beloved mother, father, sister, brother, grandparent or child used to be. One man whose wife died seven years ago said to me: “I hate this time of year more than anything. I keep seeing her and missing her so much I feel sick all the time. I don’t want to go to any parties or even entertain.” He said people kept saying inane things like: “Christmas isn’t the time to be glum” or “C’mon, cheer up. Get into the festive spirit.”
The author of the book Living With Depression, Deborah Serani, says: “Don’t let anyone put a time limit on your broken heart.” She stresses that people going through this type of grieving shouldn’t feel ashamed when they feel low at this time of year.
Then there are many people who are ill. This time last year, I was bedridden after having had a small operation. All my support people were away, and it was very scary. And feelings of rejection must come up if you are old or sick and no one comes to see you.
So how do we cope? Psychotherapist Purcell, writing on the website PsychCentral,says it’s OK to feel what you feel. There aren’t any “shoulds” about it. She says to seek sun and endorphins, and help someone else in need. If you are alone, create your own traditions, such as a Christmas Day bushwalk. Stay busy and avoid too much unstructured time.
Psychology Today experts recommend avoiding ruminations, comparisons, perfectionism. Put up boundaries to those who demand too much of your time. And be realistic: lower expectations of yourself. Try to practise gratitude.
The Mayo Clinic advises reaching out to new friends and the community, perhaps asking for support. Set aside any differences even for that short time; try giving homemade gifts. Look after yourself with exercise and a bit of indulgence.
All the experts remind us to not overindulge in potentially addictive alcohol and food to get away from bad feelings. It will make things worse. All recommend seeking professional help if needed.
My advice is to stay off Facebook and social media. Their aim is to strike FOMO — Fear Of Missing Out — into our hearts.
Like they say in the horror movies: “Cover your eyes!” And it will all go away soon.