All I want for Christmas is my mental health
Hayley gives us some tips on how to maintain your mental welling during the festive period.
23rd December 2021, 9.00am | Written by: Hayley
Christmas is that time of year that brings magic and peace to all, or does it?
I have always loved Christmas, the lights, the traditions, giving, receiving and precious family time spent at home. This all sounds wonderful but unfortunately Christmas can be anything but magical with the pressures and expectations threaten to overwhelm you.
With some shops opening their Christmas aisles as early as September, the ‘offers’ not long behind. Perfection is personified in every 30 second advert in between every programme on TV from early November. Happy families, great food, flowing drinks, lavishly wrapped gifts under the flawless luxurious trees, children laughing and sharing and the well behaved dog sitting quietly in the corner are flaunted across our screens.
We all want to create the magical Christmas for everyone, but that can mean anxiety inducing pressures, oppressive internal and external expectations. What is the reality of Christmas, September the kids start to see signs of Christmas and are reminded of Santa’s generosity and the gift requests start rolling in. Lists changing every week with the offer of the week. You try to manage expectations as you start to think about what Christmas is going to cost and the requests add up. Distraction from Christmas comes in the form of Halloween and half term in October and you stretch the distraction into November with fireworks, sparklers, hot dogs and talk of Guy Faulkes.
By mid November Christmas adverts are in full swing, the children are reminded of Santa’s generosity once again and the requests start up again. You try to manage expectations again, not realising that maybe you need to manage your own as ideas of achieving the perfect Christmas swirl around your head. You dream of smiling, grateful children on Christmas day as they open their lovingly bought gifts and bang the dream disappears as your children are overwhelmed, over excited and are fighting amongst themselves for the tenth time before 10am on a busy Saturday. Adults tell you not to buy for them and focus on the kids but you know that last time you adhered to that request you were reminded of the wonderful present your sister bought your mother for six months. Your planned shopping trip arrives, the kids are supposed to be in school and then one of them takes ill and your shopping day is postponed. You play nursemaid to a questionably ill child who seems perfectly well by 9.45am as he stuffs himself with a second breakfast and is hopping around the furniture, quick to prove his sickness with a ‘poorly face’ when questioned.
Just over four weeks to go and you haven’t managed to start your shopping yet. The kids excitement grows with the arrival of the naughty little elves you mistakenly invited into your house bringing the advent calendars and the official count down begins.
So far you are holding everything together with a laugh and reassurance there is plenty of time to get everything. The children write their official letters to Santa and one last change of plan for Christmas day, the family are coming to you, the worries snake around your head as the pressure is turned up.
The elves are up to their usual trickery inconveniencing your morning routine as you have to climb over their spa days and the kids wake up time gets earlier to check on the elvish adventures, the excitement is building every day, the scraps and fights are getting more frequent and your patience is wearing thin as the feeling of failure grips you, way before the day arrives.
By this point you are on track to finish shopping but the doubts are creeping in as to just how perfect it will be with auntie Jen’s famous drunken outbursts, your mum’s criticisms, your dad making excuses for mum, kids not being happy with their gifts, it all feels too much as your head races with doubts, self-criticism and the fight to achieve perfection, the requests keep coming from family with no offer to help and you’re feeling exhausted and that you could have a break from Christmas for this year.
Christmas eve activities go well, still your mind is not quiet and every disappointment magnified and felt intensely. You put your best foot forward and get everything done for Christmas day, the kids are happy, you catch snippets the criticism, you keep going all so you don’t have to listen to too much of it, in case it reinforces what you’re already thinking. The day is successful for everyone except you as you lay in bed on Christmas night listing the things you should have done better missing the happiness in your children, the satisfaction in your partner, the joys of the day as your self punishment takes over. Your mind and head is still going.
People will offer suggestions of you should…, you should, you should, and it’s just more pressure to do what others think is right, but there is no one way to do Christmas, only the best way for you. If creating the best Christmas you can is important to you, then looking after yourself is equally as important.
Planning doesn’t bring everyone joy and I’m not a planner by nature but I remember the year I started planning from the previous Christmas, it was the first Christmas that I wasn’t rushing in December, I felt financially secure and reduced the stress. So if planning earlier (doesn’t have to be a year ahead) can help you in any way to reduce stress, it could be saving monthly, buying one gift / wrapping paper / accessories a month or getting support from family members with planning the day.
Be realistic from the inside out. Start with your own expectations, you may not realise exactly what you would like for Christmas to be, be realistic taking into account who is involved in your Christmas. For example if you have a grunting teenager who has stopped taking part in family activities, this won’t necessarily change because it is Christmas or if you have family members coming to you for Christmas who complain about everything, it’s not personal.
Mange your children’s / family’s expectations, be honest with them about what you can afford, what Christmas is about, what you want from them.
Set realistic financial limits
I understand it can be guilt inducing to say to your child they can’t have that £1800 phone that all their friends are talking about having but if your struggling to pay for it before or after that can cause long term acute stress. I see a lot of first time parents buying thousands of pounds worth of gifts before the child understands and what usually happens is every year tops the last year, meaning more and more expense in a time when wages are not rising, uncertain times.
Put yourself first occasionally and Take time out
This one almost seems impossible at Christmas time with all the commitments, but it’s probably the time when you need it most. Time out doesn’t have to be long, just quality time to be out of your busy head and busy life to relax and focus on your own needs.
Be kind to yourself
Increasing positive self talk and reminders of how well you’re doing reduces the rom and time for self criticism, self punishment and berating. We have a habit of noticing our mistakes and failures, raking ourselves over the coals and feeling lousy but missing all the great things we are achieving.
It can be hard to recognise the good things in your life once you’re mind starts a life of its own. Searching for the things to be grateful for is empowering, satisfying and adds to your happiness.
Distract and refocus
You may think that you are distracted enough with all the extra things you are doing, however, doing the things that make you happy and help you gain the space to refocus are a great benefit. It doesn’t all have to be about your family, children or Christmas, some time can be set aside for you to take time out to distract and refocus.
Catch your busy mind and break the patterns
The stress of Christmas may have triggered those negative thought patterns, e.g. ‘I can’t cope’, ‘it won’t be perfect’, ‘I can’t do this’ type thoughts that exacerbate stress and anxiety. Being able to recognise the thought patterns and disrupt the patterns, one simple disruptions technique is saying to yourself “I’m having those thoughts”, you disrupt the thought pattern and it enables you to do something else more productive and even be kinder to yourself.
Set your boundaries stick to them
Setting boundaries takes practice if you’ve never done it before, boundaries are your way of communicating to others how you want to be treated. Be clear in your mind about what behaviours you are willing to give and accept e.g. no criticism. Some boundaries need to be communicated to others but not all, No criticism would need to be communicated to the person or to all attending your house but if you decide that you are not going to put up with someone taking over the cooking, you have to be clear and consistent in your behaviour and insistence that you’re happy to do it.
"Everyone I know has a different description of their loneliness. Here's mine..."Find out more
"Shortly after the birth of my son, I struggled to bond with him for the first six weeks or so. During this time, I felt so isolated..."Find out more