There are beautiful things to look forward to this holiday. Precious time spent with family. Wonderful lie-in’s from days off work. Reunions with old friends. The giving of specially chosen gifts that have been lovingly bought, craftily hidden, and delicately wrapped. These are beautiful things to look forward to, and what gives me hope in the dark winter days. But it wasn’t always this way. When I was a teenager I dreaded the coming of Christmas and wished for it to pass quickly.
My depression had always worsened in the winter; for many years I had never even heard of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and just thought that I hated Christmas, that I was the teenage Scrooge and doomed to ruin Christmas for my family. It wasn’t until I went to University and met people similar to me, (one of whom had a SAD lamp which she used for study in the winter) that I started to put two and two together – my own picture of my mental health diagnosis began to come into focus. Then when I was young I feared the Christmas season because it only served to draw attention to my eating disorder – it’s pretty hard to claim that you just ‘don’t feel like it,’ every single time your friends or family offer you chocolate over the 12 days of Christmas, and to fight with your family at every big meal. By the time I made it to University I started to enjoy the actual Christmas celebrations and could manage the food side of things well, but the idea of spending a week cut off from my normal routine and my support system was downright daunting, if not terrifying. And these were all feelings I had to hide – because being depressed at Christmas means you are a grump. A Grinch. You might as well be kicking Tiny Tim whilst you’re at it. And that’s all before we have got to the crushing social anxiety and emotional pressure that is New Years Eve.
And yet we know now that it is incredibly common for people to feel depression around the holiday time. Even the cheeriest person can be brought to the lowest sloughs of sadness after seven solid hours of Christmas shopping. So why do we put harsh labels on something that so many of us struggle with? Why is it worse for a person to be depressed over the holidays than it is in February, and why does our compassion adjust accordingly? After years of struggling, my depression still intensifies at this time of year, and I know it is very similar for other friends with depression and anxiety disorders. And yet I am often more afraid to reach out to people at this time of year, which makes the moments when they reach out to me and offer their understanding and compassion even more valuable.So what can you do to provide those moments of relief for your friends and family who struggle? How can we contribute to removing the stigma of depression in the holidays? How can you help make someone’s holiday easier to get through, and maybe even festive?
Here are some of my thoughts:
- Dial back the Pressure
Sometimes it’s just all too much. The parties, the people, everything. In the past it has been so great just having someone in my life who actually says, ‘well, we don’t have to go,’ rather than ‘Oh you’re not coming? But it’s CHRISTMASSS!’ (response: I know it’s Christmas, but I’m still gonna have a panic attack in your bathroom if I come to your party, Kay?) I love my friends, and I don’t want them to think I don’t value them or the plans they make, but sometimes I can’t manage my mental health well enough to meet their expectations. On those occasions, it is so amazing to have friends who will respond with kindness, or extend invitations that let me know they understand. Saying, ‘Hey, I’m having this party and I would love to see you, but I know you’re really tired and stuff so if you can’t make it, it’s totally fine,’ is amazing. It takes all the pressure off, and if you can follow it up with ‘perhaps we can have coffee sometime, just the two of us?’ then that’s even better.
2. Make new traditions
Traditions can be a real stresser – the idea of having to go somewhere and be a particular thing can be incredibly pressurising, especially if a person has a disorder or a mental illness that means they can’t really partake of traditions in the same way other people can. Maybe they have a serious eating disorder and the idea of a rich, full-on, holiday of eating gives them a total melt-down. Maybe their depression is so inhibiting that they can’t get out of bed, can’t go to church, can’t make it to the annual carolling session by the big tree. Maybe their social anxiety is so crippling that the idea of that office party is keeping them awake at night. In these cases, think about what might make them feel included, not excluded. One of the biggest pressures of Christmas is the idea of not being able to join in when you feel like you should. Mental illness pushes you away from the people you love, and sometimes it can feel like the traditions are actually pushing you even further away from those people. We can battle it by making new traditions to pull people together. I can assure you, they don’t want to miss out, or miss out on important time with you. Maybe you make Turkey sandwiches instead of turkey roast, or assure your friend that they should only eat what they feel comfortable with. Maybe you take a some crafts round to your friend who is having trouble getting out and spend some time making Christmas decorations together. Which brings me to –
3. Talk to them
The question ‘How are you?’ when asked over Christmas seems like it can only be answered one of two ways: ‘I’m amazing! Happy Christmas! WOOO!’ or ‘I’m so stressed I still need to decorate/shop/cook etc…’ There isn’t much space for a person to be very honest, and confess that actually they are really riding a down-swing into depression. Part of the reason this is so difficult is due to the threat of being told you are un-festive, or ‘bringing everyone down.’ If you can acknowledge to your friend that it is possible to feel down in the holidays, then they might be able to feel safe enough to be open about their mental state. Saying, ‘hey, I know you get down sometimes, how are you coping at the moment?’ might open them up to a place where they can tell you some of things that are making things difficult, or some of the things that could help. Which leads quite nicely to ….
4. Work out what they need.
Do they need company? Do they need time alone? Do they need you to pick them up and take them to the cinema where they can sit in the dark for a couple of hours and not talk to anybody but still not be alone? What do they need to keep their mental health in good balance?
By talking to them and asking them you can work it out together. It is easy for a person to offer suggestions about what you can do to feel better, but saying ‘Well maybe you should get out of the house more,’ is harmful. Saying something like ‘well, can I come and pick you up tomorrow and we can go to coffee, or wherever you feel comfortable?’ might be the life-raft they need to survive the holiday. It’s the difference between someone telling you what you need to do to make yourself feel better, and someone offering to make you feel better. Which would you prefer? My husband has become very good at knowing when I need to sleep away my anxiety, when I need to leave a party early, when I need to climb into bed and not get out for a little while. Like other people with mental illness, I have a pretty good sense of these things for myself, of my own limitations and needs, but it can be exhausting. It makes a huge difference having a person step in and offer to help you like this, even if it is just suggesting that you meet for a cup of tea and a chat.
5. Remember, you don’t have to compromise your own holiday spirit!
If you are a super positive and happy person around Christmas time, I know it can feel a bit awkward around people who are struggling and feeling low. Sometimes it can feel as if you shouldn’t be positive and happy in their presence, like you’re not taking them seriously. But you should be! You should be who you are. I have some incredibly positive and excitable friends who LOVE Christmas and relish every moment of the festive season and when I’m having a terrible day and wish Christmas was over I still want them to be who they are. Sure, we’re not the same, but it’s not as if I wish they were more laid back, I just really wish I had the energy to keep up with them. My friends help me do this by bringing all that joy that they have, all that energy, but just containing it within a context that is helpful for me. Whilst a giant party wouldn’t be good for someone like me, watching a festive movie together would be great. Everyone’s different, but a friend who shuts themselves off from you because they think their cheer won’t be helpful for your depression is just cutting you out. Bring your Christmas spirit into my dark little space, if you are willing. It might even raise my spirits, and make me feel included in your celebrations.
Those are my tips, and they are based solely on my experience and the experiences of my friends. Everyone is different and needs different things, but one thing is for sure – friendships keep people going. I don’t want to feel cut off from my friends, or like we can’t celebrate together because I struggle with my depression and anxiety around the holiday season. We have new traditions, we try to make things less pressured for me and for them, and we talk about it and work it out. You can too.
The holidays can be difficult, but by understanding where we are at in our mental health and understanding the mental health of our friends and family, we can go a long way to making them a lot easier.
Article about holiday depression: http://www.healthline.com/health/depression/holidays#2
Information and tips about how to cope over the holidays: http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20550695_2,00.html
Information about Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Seasonal-affective-disorder/Pages/Introduction.aspx