Mental Health at Christmas

Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Worried that your depression or anxiety will skyrocket at Christmas? Or your bipolar disorder will see you manic? Christmas and mental health are not always the best bedfellows.

Why is it so much harder to cope at Christmas?

It’s true that Christmas can present way more challenges than usual. We can see ourselves navigate:

  • loneliness if we are away from family or single
  • stress around family get togethers and parenting
  • pressure to live up to the holiday expectations of those around us
  • worries we’ll let others down around presents and doing the right things
  • feeling left out if we aren’t invited to certain parties or don’t receive cards
  • depression if we’ve recently lost someone we loved or have no family
  • more temptation to drink alcohol and be merry.

How to manage your mental health at Christmas

So how to navigate the Christmas season and keep your equilibrium?

1. Don’t give up any medicines or treatment right now.

Again, this is a stressful time of year. It’s not the right time to suddenly decide to stop any meds you are on or quit seeing your therapist. If you are suffering from an impulsive desire to do so, then accept that’s how you feel, but delay the choice until after the new year when you have more clarity to reconsider.

And if you are on meds, make sure you have enough to get through the holidays and an extra week as back up just in case.

2. Forget about solving longstanding issues just now.

So you and a family member need to have it out around something. Or you feel like you and your partner aren’t on the same page at the moment and need to talk about it.

These are all very good things to take care of, and usually, denial or avoidance is a negative coping mechanism. Things are best dealt with. But remember that your mental health can be fragile, and that you need to put yourself first during holidays when things are more stressful than usual. Is there really anything that can’t wait a week or two?

And if a family member tries to start something with you, be brave and set a clear boundary. Thank them for their honesty and wanting to talk, but ask them to make a date with you for after the holidays to continue the conversation.

3. Don't feel pressured on the 'Christmas cheer' front.

It’s a very hard time of the year if alcohol or drugs are an issue we struggle with, or if we know very well they always exacerbate our depression and anxiety.

It can be very helpful to carry a small memento in your pocket you can use as a touchstone when you are at an event and feeling pressured. Or a list in your wallet of the five things you will lose if you don’t respect your own boundaries here, such as the ability to feel alert for your kids the next day, your own self respect, energy and wellbeing, etc.

4. Quit the comparison.

If there is one way to make ourselves feel like crap at Christmas, it’s upwards comparison. This means comparing our life to everyone we think is doing better. Who has more friends, a happier family, more money for gifts, who is going on a better vacation, etcetera. Meanwhile we know nothing of the reality of their lives.

Try this instead -- downward comparison. It’s actually shown by research to improve our self-esteem. It’s not mean to quietly recognise you are doing better than others, that you at least are in good health, that you are living in a first world country, and that you have a roof over your head.

5. Use your tools to aid your mental health at Christmas.

We all know how to journal, or meditate, or get out and go for a brisk walk to help our mood. And yet when stress hits or we are feeling glum, it can be very tempting to do anything but use tried and true mental health tools.

Find a way to inspire yourself to use your tools. Keep a track record, for example, and you treat yourself when you reach ten uses of positive tools.

6. If you are alone create your own traditions.

It can feel easy to enter into a bubble of self pity and do nothing.

But traditions are important. Research shows that rituals that help us tap into collective events like holidays lead to ‘collective effervescence’, a good feeling that helps our wellbeing.

So why not create your own new holiday tradition? Celebrate Solstice for the first time, or decide that from now on every year you will go to a Christmas concert. Or better yet, volunteer, shown to raise our moods and help us feel connected.

7. Have your support team ready.

This is the perfect time to find a support buddy if you don’t already have one. Agree to be there for each other, but set limits (like a five minute talk every other day maximum per person) so nobody is tempted to over give.

If you are with a therapist, consider asking for extra sessions over the holidays if you suspect you will need it. And have numbers of support lines on hand in case of emergency, such as the Good Samaritans who are open 24-7 over Christmas.

Need some last minute support to deal with mental health issues at Christmas? Use our easy booking tool now to find therapists available as soon as tomorrow.

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