7 ways therapy can help you have a mentally healthy Christmas

by Sarah Graham
Thursday 20 November 2014
314 12331

According to Andy Williams' 1963 pop classic, it's the "most wonderful time of the year". But we all know that, in reality, Christmas comes with more than its fair share of stresses and, if you're affected by a mental health condition, this can make it an especially difficult time. We asked some RSCPP therapists how therapy could help you prepare for a mentally healthy, stress-free Christmas.

 

1. Tackling money worries head-on 

Along with the glitter of Christmas, come the not-so-sparkling worries about money. It's a time of the year when many people take expensive sun holidays to break up the dark winter, while others purchase countless Christmas presents for family and friends and engage in extra socialising and spending. This can all add up financially and, come January, when it's time to pay those credit cards, reality hits. If you are struggling with mental health problems, this can be a challenging time. Assessing your priorities and establishing boundaries for yourself (and others) can be highly challenging for everyone, especially if you're struggling with existing emotional difficulties. Therapy may help you feel brave enough to stand up to the pressure to overspend and be extravagant with your resources. Learning to say 'NO', finding more creative (and less expensive) ways of enjoying the holiday season, and daring to be sensible can be some of the best and most rewarding gifts you can offer yourself (and your loved ones, in the long-run) at this time.

 

2. Talking through family difficulties

Christmas is widely publicised as a time for joy and a time for families. For a lot of people that is difficult - they may not have families, there may be sorrow associated with family because of bereavement or other loss, or there may even be fear and trauma associated with family. Much mental distress is associated with family relationship difficulties, past or present. The 'dissonance' - the fact that it doesn't tally with your experience - between the message of a 'happy Christmas' with your family and the reality of time with or without family sharpens distress at this time. Whether your mental health is otherwise good or bad, this can be a difficult time. Therapy can help by giving you a space to share these feelings, by helping you understand what's behind them, and by supporting you to develop more emotional resilience so you can make the best of whatever the deal is that life has dealt you.

 

3. Managing bipolar disorder

Christmas can be a very difficult time for those living with bipolar for several reasons. This is an illness that is often regulated with medication and self-management, and the latter tends to be challenging during this season because many of the common mood triggers are happening at one time. Routine and regular sleep patterns are extremely important but these are easily disrupted with all the change, and there is a temptation to drink alcohol, which affects moods. Family gatherings can be stressful and involve conflict. Support networks fragment with everyone away, support groups close and mental health services are on skeleton staff. Over stimulation, such as partying and lots going on can lead to hyper or manic moods. Seeing a therapist beforehand can help you gain an awareness of your own mood triggers and anticipate the ones which are likely to occur over the Christmas period. You can work together to put a plan in place to minimise them where possible, recognise the early warning signs of a mood swing and identify which interventions will work best for you if needed. A therapist can also assist you in creating an alternative routine to maximise your ability to cope with the disruption.

 

4. Normalising your imperfect Christmas

Whether you have a diagnosed mental condition or are generally dissatisfied with your life at the moment, it can be tempting to believe that most people will be having a 'perfect Christmas'. We are bombarded by pictures of idealised families, couples and singles in the media and social networks. You may compare yourself unfavourably and feel inferior, so you feel worse during the holiday period when you feel you should be happy. You may be lonely, on your own or among a family you don't always get on with. A therapist can help to normalise your situation and feelings, and shed light on what might be unhelpful ways of thinking. They can give you a safe place to express your real self and work out how to deal with relationships - or the lack of them. You can feel lighter, less alone with difficult feelings, and better about yourself. Therapy can help you gain a perspective which will leave you more prepared to have the best Christmas for you.

 

5. Coping with bereavement

This time of year can be a period of intense struggle for anyone who has suffered a bereavement either recently or in the past. There is no right or wrong about how you should be feeling or what you should be doing - whatever feels right for you is ok. Acknowledge the fact it is going to be a difficult time. Maybe hang an ornament in memory of a loved one, mount a photo of them in a Christmas frame. Allow yourself time to reflect and to cry when you feel sad, but then also allow moments of joy to creep in. Therapy can provide you with that extra bit of emotional support that could just be all you need to help you get through the darker months. It can allow you some time to take stock of how you are feeling in order that you cope with Christmas in the best way you can, and be able to deal with life more effectively when this time of year comes round again.

 

6. Tackling painful feelings and memories

Christmas brings all sorts of feelings, a sense of warmth and anticipation for some, while for others it may bring less welcome feelings of pressure, depression and anxiety, unhappy childhood memories, isolation or a sense of dissatisfaction. If you already have a mental health problem then this time of year might be particularly difficult to cope with. Christmas and New Year see a peak in the rates of divorce and suicide, as painful feelings both past and present become overwhelming. Christmas may trigger specific, often painful memories from the past. It is at times of stress, such as Christmas, that difficult feelings pop up unexpectedly. No matter how hard you try to ignore them by keeping busy, thinking positively or pushing them away, feelings from the past can continue to spoil the present. Therapy can help you to manage Christmas by working out where the emotional difficulties come from. Exploring with a therapist exactly what feels hard about the festive period can lead to a better understanding of your feelings and you can use that awareness to make changes and look after yourself better.

 

7. Combating isolation associated with depression, anxiety, addiction or other issues

If you suffer from depression, anxiety, addiction or other issues, you may find your symptoms getting worse at Christmas. As you may feel alone at a time when others are in a festive mood, you may be at risk of isolating yourself further. Rather than suffering alone, consider reaching out to someone for support - whether a friend, family member or a therapist. When you feel overwhelmed, therapy can help you get through a difficult time, as well as working on strategies to manage your feelings of loneliness, isolation or grief.


Finding support


If you are concerned about the issues raised in this article then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

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Updated 24 November 2014