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Talking at Christmas
Posted by
17th Dec 2014

Our friends RSCPP have written a blog on why talking about how you're feeling can be helpful for you and your mental health, especially during this time of year. We hope you find it helpful.

It's sold to us as the most wonderful time of the year – a joyful period of family, friends, eating, drinking, magic and sparkle – but in reality Christmas can also be an incredibly difficult time for many.

Besides the presents and parties, Christmas may be a time of loneliness or family conflict, stress about money and debt, or a period that brings up painful memories of past experiences or bereavements.

And, if you're affected by a mental health condition, you may find that the emotional overload of Christmas merely serves to exacerbate your symptoms and leaves you feeling isolated.

We spoke to some of the therapists listed on RSCPP about how therapy could help you to manage the stresses and strains of the festive period.

Feelings of inferiority

"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'," says counsellor Gill Brennan.

At a time when TV adverts and glossy magazine spreads seem to be full of happy families tucking into their Christmas feast, surrounded by neatly wrapped piles of gifts, it can be easy to compare yourself to these idealised images.

Rather than spending the rest of December consumed with these feelings of inferiority, Gill says: "A therapist can help to normalise your situation and feelings, and shed light on what might be unhelpful ways of thinking."

She adds: "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."

Of course, when it comes to more concrete difficulties like debt and relationship problems, these may seem harder to manage psychologically.

Financial stresses

With adverts imploring you to buy the latest must-have for your friends and relatives, money worries can easily stack up, and counselling psychologist Sandra Zecevic-Gonzalez says "assessing your priorities and establishing boundaries for yourself and others can be highly challenging."

If you struggle with addictive shopping at the best of times, Christmas may make it harder to notice when you're losing control. With everyone else around you seemingly in a Christmas shopping frenzy, you may find yourself "vastly over-spending, and often hoping that the gifts being bought will buy the longed-for emotional responses," says Psychotherapist Adrienne Baker, author of Serious Shopping: essays in psychotherapy and consumerism.

In this case, Sandra says, "Therapy may help you feel brave enough to stand up to the pressure to overspend and be extravagant with your resources", while Adrienne recommends psychotherapy to help understand the underlying feelings behind your excessive shopping habits.

Relationship difficulties

Financial stresses aside, Christmas may also be an especially difficult time for relationships – whether romantic partners, family, or even your relationship with yourself. It may be a time when you feel the loss of bereavements more acutely and, since January is the busiest month for divorce, we know it's also a time when conflict between couples may come to a head.

Psychotherapist Peter Cockersell says: "Christmas is widely publicised as a time for families. For a lot of people that is difficult – they may not have families, there may be sorrow because of bereavement or other loss, or there may even be fear and trauma associated with family."

He adds: "Therapy can give you a space to share these feelings, help you understand what's behind them, and support you to develop more emotional resilience."

Many couples may find their existing relationship difficulties, having been brushed under the carpet all year, are brought out by the stresses of organising a family Christmas.

You may feel that you're simply too busy, but finding the time to fit in couple's therapy ahead of the holidays could help you and your partner communicate your feelings and frustrations better, and avoid adding to those January divorce statistics.

Bereavement

If bereavement has left Christmas feeling less magical than it used to be, counsellor Kathrine Jones says it's important to acknowledge the fact it is going to be a difficult time.

"Maybe hang an ornament in memory of a loved one, or mount a photo of them in a Christmas frame," she says. "Allow yourself time to reflect and to cry when you feel sad, but then also allow moments of joy to creep in."

Whether your loss was recent or in the past, Christmas is understandably a time when you may particularly reflect on those who are no longer with you. "There is no right or wrong about how you should be feeling or what you should be doing," Kathrine says.

"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."

Mental health conditions

Finally, if you have an existing mental health condition, Christmas is often a time when your support networks – GPs, therapists, community groups – close for the holidays, just when you may be feeling most in need.

Counsellor Katie Leatham says: "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."

Christmas may trigger specific, often painful memories from the past, as difficult feelings tend to pop up unexpectedly at times of stress.

Katie adds: "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."

Eating disorders and emotional overeating.

Christmas understandably triggers a lot of difficult feelings for anyone struggling with their psychological relationship to food.

If you're suffering or recovering from an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, counselling psychologist Julie Scheiner says, "the best advice I can give you at this time of year is to accept that you have an eating disorder; there is no point giving yourself a hard time about the fact that you are experiencing difficulties with your eating."

She adds: "it may be worthwhile sharing your feelings with your family or friends. Food is everywhere and there is no getting away from it, however the heightened feelings of stress and anxiety you may be feeling are normal."

At this time in particular, she says, "it's important to find your own ways of being able to self-soothe by being mindful of yourself and your body."

Meanwhile, if you find yourself overeating for emotional reasons, counsellor and psychotherapist Barbara Kelly says, "Talking things through with a therapist can help you identify repeating patterns of eating, what function – over and above nutrition – food serves for you, and what you can do to change your relationship with food and eating."

Depression, anxiety, addiction and feelings of isolation

If you suffer from depression, anxiety, addiction or other mental health conditions, you may find your symptoms getting worse at Christmas.

Counsellor and psychotherapist Esmee Rotmans explains: "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."

She adds, "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."

Bipolar disorder

Likewise, Christmas can be a very difficult time for anyone living with bipolar. Counsellor and psychotherapist Imelda Turnock explains, "Self-management tends to be challenging during this season because many of the common mood triggers are happening at one time."

She adds: "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. Over stimulation, such as partying and lots going on can lead to hyper or manic moods."

Ahead of the holidays, seeing a therapist may help you gain an awareness of your own mood triggers and anticipate the ones most likely to occur over Christmas, Imelda explains.

"You can work together to put a plan in place to minimise [the triggers] where possible, recognise the early warning signs of a mood swing, and identify which interventions will work best for you if needed," she says.

Whatever particular issues you're struggling with this Christmas, it's important to remember that support is available. At a time when we spend so much time thinking about and trying to please others, speaking out about your feelings, and reaching out to someone who can help, could just be the gift you owe yourself.

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