Mental health and wellbeing, General

16 December, 2021

Tips to get through a difficult Christmas

This image shows a close-up of a Christmas tree with decorations and lights.

While many of us love Christmas, it can be a difficult time of year for others, for a lot of different reasons. We share tips for dealing with some of the challenges that we can face over the festive season, from dealing with stress or family conflict to coping with loss or pressure around food and alcohol.

Christmas is a time where we celebrate, relax and connect with our loved ones. For some, it is ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, but, for others, it can be quite the opposite. Christmas tends to provoke many emotions within us, both positive and negative. Here, mental health specialists from across our team at St Patrick’s Mental Health Services offer some advice to help navigate the holiday season.

How to manage stress at Christmas

Christmas is typically seen as a time for celebration: listening to music, giving presents, enjoying food and drink, and spending time with friends and family. However, this year will see extra strains at a time already fraught with demands, as we continue to keep our social distance and experience the muted merriment of current restrictions. So, try these festive stress-busting strategies to ease the strain and help stress melt away.

  • Be realistic.

    The festive season doesn’t have to be perfect or just like previous years. Even as families change and grow and life moves on, renewed meaning can be found in seasonal rituals of all kinds.

    Select a few traditions to hold on to, and be open to embracing new ones. For example, if your friends and family can’t visit your home, find new ways of celebrating together, such as sharing pictures, videos or emails or meet virtually on a video call. Although your festive plans may look different this year, you can find new ways to celebrate.

  • Plan ahead.

    Use your diary to prepare and plan how your time is going to be spent. Schedule specific days to complete shopping, prepare meals, connect with family and friends, and do other activities. Consider whether you can shop online or ‘click and collect’ to avoid the crowds. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list to avoid last-minute searching for ingredients.

  • Set a budget and stick to it.

    Budgeting is important all year round, but, around Christmas, it can really make a difference.

    Make a list of what you need to buy and divide it into gifts, food, clothes and socialising.

    Suggest a Secret Santa for your groups of friends or family with an agreed budget. Even if you don’t organise a Secret Santa, you could still propose a spending limit. The best gifts aren’t necessarily the most expensive, so get creative and consider unique and personalised options.

    Spread out gift shopping and food and drink buying over the month. Start planning for next year and set aside money each month to reduce the stress for next year too.

  • Learn to say no.

    Saying "yes" when you should say "no" can leave you feeling anxious and stressed. Family, friends and colleagues will understand if you can’t participate in every project or activity.

  • Don't abandon healthy habits.

    Focusing on maintaining your health habits doesn’t mean going without any indulgences; it just means setting some limits. Stick with a routine, eat healthy meals, stay hydrated, get plenty of rest, include regular exercise and avoid over-indulging on food and alcohol.

  • Take a breather.

    Find an activity you enjoy and take a break for yourself. Spending 15 minutes alone may recharge your batteries enough to handle everything you need to do. Some options could include taking a walk, reading a book, listening to music or having a relaxing bath.

How to deal with family dynamics at Christmas

How to deal with family dynamics at Christmas

Everything is bigger and “more” at Christmas. We eat more, drink more and see more of our family than at any other time. Underlying tensions that have been managed all year are suddenly magnified. Our expectations that everything will be “just so” increase these tensions.

So, how can you get through Christmas without adding to that list?

  • Choose your battles: don’t argue about everything little thing.
  • Make your needs and wants clear. Don’t expect that others should know you need help without asking for it.
  • Start conversations about positive, uncontentious issues (ones that are not likely to cause an argument). Just as you take time off from work, try to take time off from the day-to day-irritants that cause those underlying tensions.
  • Be grateful for the thought and effort that others put into your gift, even if it’s not the one you want.
  • Compliment the host if you are the guest.
  • Be gracious in accepting compliments if you are the host
  • Be honest instead of angry with family members who want to do something differently or spend time apart – “I’ll miss you, but enjoy yourself”.
  • Be kind.

How to cope with loneliness at Christmas

How to cope with loneliness at Christmas

For many people, Christmas is a time of celebration and companionship, but, for others, it can spark feelings of loneliness and isolation. The pressure to feel connected can intensify our existing feelings of disconnection, which can make the festive season difficult. 

If you are feeling lonely:

  • Reach out. Asking for help can seem overwhelming and terrifying and something we perhaps would rather avoid doing, but it is important to let others know how we are feeling. Maybe a phone call or Facetime with a loved one, or even a text message to let the other person know you are thinking of them. If you are really struggling, reach out for professional support.
  • Have a plan for the day. If you know your feelings of loneliness will surface around the festive period, then plan ahead. Maybe arrange to volunteer or visit a neighbor, and try to keep somewhat busy so that you are not left to ruminate or dwell on your thoughts. Take part in activities that you enjoy and that make you feel good.
  • Show some self-compassion. Remember that it’s ok to feel like this and validate those feelings. Allow yourself to sit with these emotions ,and remember that everyone feels lonely from time to time.
  • Remember that it is just a day and, like any other day, it will pass.

How to cope with loss at Christmas

How to cope with loss at Christmas

Everywhere we look at Christmas, there are references to love, togetherness and family. It can be a really painful time for people who have lost loved ones, whether that be this year or many years ago. It is important to realise that these feelings are also part of the grieving process. Allow time for all your emotions. It’s okay to be sad and it’s also okay to be joyful.

It can be really useful to give some thought to devising a loose ‘survival kit’, which starts with checking in with family about how they are feeling, having a to-do wish list for the family, and also an individual wish list.

If there are children, it is important to enable them to look forward to and enjoy Christmas, and also take time to remember that someone is not there.

It can be useful to continue some family traditions or to create new ones, as long as there is no pressure: be flexible.

Some people like to visit a grave or special place to give time to remember around this time of the year.

On Christmas Day, give yourself space both not to be okay and to smile and have some fun. Remember to look after yourself and your family.

How to have a healthy and sober Christmas

Christmas can be a wonderful time for family and friends to come together. It can be an especially magical and memorable time for children. Advertisements and high street displays send strong messages about how we are supposed to act and feel. However, all this expectation can lead to a time of added stress for people in recovery from addiction and their families.

Here are some tips and advice to protect your recovery during the festive season.

  • Have a plan and stick to it.

    It’s an oldie but it’s true: be prepared. Be clear in your own mind about what it is that you want to do. Is there anything that could lead to a potential relapse, make you anxious or leave you vulnerable to temptation? Be firm and stick to your plan. Is there an annual Christmas party that you would rather skip? It’s ok to say no. Your sobriety is your responsibility and you do not have to feel guilty for putting your recovery first.

  • Have support.

    Just because it’s Christmas, it does not mean that you should leave your routine and structure to the wayside.

    Find out what meetings and recovery events are available locally on days like Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years Day. Download the In the Rooms app to have access to recovery meetings around the world in your pocket.

    Remember your network of people that are around you to support your sobriety and reach out to them before it gets too much.

    Encourage family members to reach out for support too: Al Anon and the Family Support Network are useful resources.

  • Look after yourself.

    Make sure that you have enough sleep, structure and routine in your day. Perhaps you have found meditation, journaling, time to yourself or going for walks particularly useful to your recovery. Know what tools work for you and use them everyday. There may be some personal relationships that are stressful for you: have a plan in place.

  • Be present.

    Try not to dwell on the past. Christmas can be a happy time, and there may also be painful memories from when your addiction was in control.

    Be compassionate with yourself and allow yourself to rewrite the script. Enjoy time with your children and family members who are supportive of your recovery.

    Focus on today and allow yourself to enjoy a sober Christmas and New Year.

How to manage an eating disorder at Christmas

How to manage an eating disorder at Christmas

Christmas can be a difficult time for many people but it can be particularly difficult for people experiencing an eating disorder (ED), their family and friends. Traditionally, Christmas celebrations are centred around socialising, eating and drinking, with the expectation that people are relaxed and in good form. As fear of food and/or weight gain, along with difficulty socialising, is part of the picture for someone experiencing an ED, it is understandable how levels of anxiety can increase, leaving the person feeling overwhelmed and distressed.

From a family and friend perspective, it is difficult to see a loved one so distressed, but, sometimes, caring responses can fluctuate between empathy and frustration, particularly if they don’t know what to do to help.

The PEACE guidelines below are some strategies that can help everyone manage Christmas with less distress.

  • Plan together in advance: this includes such things as visiting or welcoming visitors, food, socialising, family time together or leisure activities. The key to planning is negotiation around what is ok and not ok for everyone.
  • Expect there will be times when people will be overwhelmed. Take some down time away from the stressful situation and engage in a pleasurable, self-care, or mindful activity.
  • Accept you are not going to get it right all of the time, and that’s ok.
  • Communcation: Keep communication open. As it is often difficult for someone with an ED to ask for help, it may be useful for a family member or friend to ask “is there anything I can do to help?”.
  • Empathy: Try to see things from the other person’s perspective. This is not about agreeing with the other person but about understanding their distress a little better.

Where to get help and support

Where to get help and support

Remember that Christmas lasts for just a few days: it will pass.

If you are struggling and worried about your mental health, help is available. Start by talking to a family member or friend, or contact your GP.

You can also speak to a mental health nurse on our Support and Information Line for guidance or support: call 01 249 333 or email to get in touch. This service runs from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (apart from bank holidays). If you get in touch outside these hours, a team member will be back to you on the next working day.

If you are in distress, you can get urgent support at any time of day or night. Contact the emergency services in Ireland at any time by calling 999 or, if you are somewhere else in Europe, call 112. Find more out of hours supports here too.