Christmas is the geekiest time of year. Don’t let depression, anxiety and stress put the Grinch into your Christmas…
Christmas is sold to us as a time of happiness and celebration. Yet for many of us, Christmas can be a time of stress, anxiety and unhappiness, and as a result it can seem like an ordeal. This could be because of Christmas itself, or because we struggle with those feelings throughout the year.
Whether you recognise or accept it, the reason we feel unhappy at any time of the year is because of the way we think about things. The therapeutic approach of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) operates from the perspective that we’re always thinking—trying to understand and find meaning in what has happened, is happening, and might happen—and our thinking is often negative, inaccurate, and unhelpful.
The explanations we come up with to understand ourselves, other people and our experiences often cause us to feel unhappy and to act in ways that add to our difficulties and unhappiness…
CBT encourages us to contemplate our unhelpful thoughts, to question and challenge them, and to help us find new and supportive realistic ideas. With this in mind, here are some ways to make Christmas a little easier for yourself and those who might be around you:
Avoid defining yourself through Christmas.
‘I have to buy them a decent present or I’ll look cheap’, ‘I’m alone at Christmas again—what’s wrong with me?’, ‘They didn’t get me a card. They don’t care about me’.
It might sound conceited, but whether we recognise and accept it or not, we think about ourselves and how we are perceived in our situations a lot. In fact, many of our personal issues will be due to our self-esteem and trying to control and defend how we’re thought of. How much we spend, how much we’re in demand, how many cards and presents we give and receive, how we look, the quality of the Christmas meal we prepare, the look of our home for guests, and whether we have a significant other at Christmas does not have to mean anything about us as a person or our Christmas—so don’t let them.
Christmas often involves being around other people and is a time for taking stock and reflecting on our life, and that’s fine, just bear in mind that we have strengths, weaknesses and a bunch of competencies in between and we—and others—can’t be defined by one, or even a handful of these. It’s easy to view others and their Christmas as something to envy from the edited highlights we’re given, or the snapshot we see, or the things we imagine, but remember that nobody is a 100% perfect or has a perfect life. Christmas isn’t about you, there are billions of people in the world and your Christmas experience won’t be unique to you—or necessarily because of you—so don’t define yourself and your life by a couple of days from it.
Be cautious in your Christmas predictions.
‘It’s going to be an awkward get together’, ‘It’s a stressful time of year’, ‘What’s the point?—I’m not going to be able to enjoy it. I’ll spoil it for everyone else’.
How we think things will be—and what we fear they will be like and turn out also plays a big part in personal problems, and Christmas is no different. Whether we think Christmas will be stressful or magical will determine how we feel at Christmas and how we approach it—defences up, or defences down. When we think we know what’s going to happen in a situation we tend to be biased in the way we test our predictions—we often only collect evidence that confirms our predictions. You could easily focus on the queues, the rudeness of others rushing around, and the business of shops to back up your prediction that ‘Christmas shopping will be awful’, but you might neglect to think about the bargains you found, the perfect present you stumbled across, and the nice coffee you had in the midst of it—you might not have taken the time to appreciate the efforts the stores have gone to in making the place Christmassy. Try and remember the payoffs that Christmas usually delivers.
Equally, going into Christmas with the unrealistic expectation for it being the perfect 1950s sweater wearing, open fire gathering, golden turkey carving, extravagant gifting, smiling beautiful people ideal might make it hard to be satisfied with reality that it’s normal life decorated with fairy lights and glitter. There will be moments of boredom, small talk, awkwardness, indigestion, hangovers. Oh, and sprouts. If you find yourself making negative predictions, then don’t act like those predictions have come true, and don’t give up on aspects of Christmas because of them—put those predictions to the test—without influencing the outcome—and if your predictions don’t hold true, then you probably need to adjust your thinking.
Don’t generalise about Christmas.
‘Christmas is a depressing time of year’, ‘Christmas is going to be awful’, ‘Christmas isn’t the same anymore’.
Barring the preparation time, Christmas itself is just three whole days. Days which can be broken down into different experiences—present giving and opening, dinners, gathering for games, a trip (or two) to the pub, visiting and having visitors, walks in the cold, and holiday TV viewing, stopping grandma from getting drunk—or whatever your Christmas traditions might be. As such there can be Christmas experiences that are great, bad and in between. If forcing a divided family into eating together, or eating alone is something that gets you down, don’t make those things your whole experience.
What Christmas means and what makes it special will change with time. People come and go from our lives, what we enjoy doing changes, and children grow up—so, no, Christmas may not be the same, but it doesn’t have to be negative. Idealising past Christmas’ and mourning their loss or using them as a benchmark isn’t going to help you find enjoyment in the present Christmas. Acknowledge that you might not be looking forward to aspects of Christmas, or actually don’t enjoy them, but search out the things you will and do enjoy and console yourself with them—try not to let a focus on the negative take away from any opportunities for enjoyment.
Check the Christmas demands.
‘It’s Christmas—I have to be happy—that’s what it’s all about’, ‘Christmas is a time for forgiveness and putting things behind us’, ‘things must be perfect’, ‘I must make sure people enjoy themselves’.
We live in a world where Christmas is marketed to us with a soft filter, a celebration of family, with models of constant happiness, plenty, and good times. These might not fit the circumstances of our lives in the half light of an overcast wintry day gaudily lit by LED fairy lights. As much as Christmas can be a magical time, it’s just dates out of the month and a couple of days—just like any others—so if we have a difficult relationship with people in our life or there are problems in our lives, then the chances are that as much as we might make the effort to keep the peace and put a brave face on things, you, your life, and the other people aren’t going to have changed and gotten easier to live with for the holiday period.
Just bear in mind that no one is happy all the time. Feelings and moods naturally fluctuate from maudlin to happy and to just ‘okay’. Christmas is unlikely to be any different—and that’s, well, okay—that’s normal. Looking for perfection from Christmas when nobody, and nobody’s lives, are perfect is setting unrealistic demands on yourself, others and Christmas itself. While you might have a pretty difficult and/or a total car crash of a family, just remember that England (among others) vs Germany football match in the trenches of World War 1. If two armies can stop killing one another for a kick around and a knees up in mud with trench foot knowing that death is closer than home, you can take a time out from your life, treat yourself, or sit down with your in-laws, then get back to the worrying and fighting each other when the turkey’s gone down, there’s only Bounty bars left in the box of Celebrations and you’re sick of the mince pies.
Ultimately, aside from being thrown a soap opera Christmas drama, the holidays can be what we make them—each of us have responsibility towards our own enjoyment. If we’re focussing on who isn’t with us at Christmas, our relationship status, what we don’t have, what our Christmas won’t be like, what didn’t go well or went wrong, those people and things we are missing, then yes, thinking like that will make Christmas a depressing time for us. Think about what you want from Christmas, check it fits with the reality of your life, and then do your best to enjoy it and look out for the unhelpful ways you are thinking about Christmas and ask yourself, ‘is there a different way to think about this?’ Don’t let unhelpful thinking spoil your Christmas.
If you’d like to read more about how thoughts can affect you—and more importantly—how to reduce their impact on you, then check out my title ‘Get Over It’.