Parties, crowds, pressure and family rifts – why Christmas can be a particularly triggering time for some…
While many of us love the festive season and the hustle and bustle of parties, family dinners and busy shopping centres, many more of us find these situations stressful and triggering. For people who have ongoing mental health issues, trauma or disorders, Christmas can be a period of extreme anxiety, as well as possible setbacks and relapses. We look at some of the most common festive triggers and give you advice and tips on how to navigate your way through the Christmas season.
Expectation Versus Reality
There is a huge expectation at Christmas that you need to be around others to have fun. But this doesn’t need to be the case. Ask yourself what kind of Christmas you want – we don’t have to stick to what society or the media says. Contrary to popular belief during the festive season, you don’t always have to enjoy yourself and look happy. The fact is, Christmas isn’t always the warm connective season it’s portrayed to be. Some people feel lonely, and this time of year can exacerbate that loneliness and it can be an isolating experience. Know you are not alone in this. It’s hard not to fall into the expectation, and the idea that everything has to be just right, because when that doesn’t happen, people feel like they’ve got it wrong or somehow failed. That’s why it can be empowering to create your own kind of Christmas. You really can pick and choose the parts you want to engage in enjoy, and step away from those that don’t fit.
Social Events and Shopping
If you suffer from social anxiety or feel uncomfortable in big crowds surrounded by noise, then Christmas parties and shopping for presents can be a trigger. Let’s begin with parties and other festive social events you may find yourself invited to – if you have a sense of dread about attending or feel anxious or at all worried, ask yourself if it might be better if you didn’t go at all? By staying at home or organising a much smaller event yourself, you can take back control and set your own boundaries.
Shopping can also be a source of great stress. Crowded stores, sweltering hot changing rooms, blaring Christmas music and long queues are all potential triggers. If you can, why not try to do most of your shopping online, or plan your shopping trips at quieter times, such as early in the morning? You could also try your hand at making your own gifts – a great way to practice mindfulness AND save money! We have lots of low-cost, handmade present ideas here.
Changes To Routine
For a lot of people, a break from the routine can be welcomed. There might be parts of Christmas we enjoy and others that don’t, and that’s OK. For some, the festive break is restorative, while for others, the lack of routine is disruptive and upsetting. The change in routine also means we sometimes do less exercise and sit around and watch more TV. You may also find yourself spending a lot of time with other people and that can become overwhelming. You’re probably likely to drink more alcohol, eat less healthy food, stay out later, and have less sleep. All of these negatively impacts our mood.
If you know that routine is something you thrive on, try to maintain some kind of pattern to your days. Aim to go to bed and get up around the same time every day, factor in some time for getting outdoors, even if just for a short walk, and make an effort to eat healthily. Maintaining some kind of routine can help you cope with anxiety and the chaos that can come with Christmas.
When families come together over Christmas, it’s not always merry and bright… We all have our own family issues: long-running arguments or resentments; separated parents; awkward relatives; past trauma and all sorts of other family divisions. While many of these issues tend to bubble just underneath the surface, Christmas can be a key time for these problems to raise their ugly head or erupt quite spectacularly. Dealing with separated or blended families can be particularly difficult at Christmas – read our advice guide to coping with separation over the festive period here.
If family triggers start to affect you there are steps you can take to protect your mental health. You can set boundaries and stick to them – let others know what you will and won’t accept and if someone breaches this, you can simply remove yourself from the situation. While you can’t control the behaviour of others, you CAN control your own actions and reactions. You can step away from the situation – leave the room and find a quiet space to calm your breathing and mind. Grounding techniques can help you in overwhelming situations like this – read more here. Or you can leave and give yourself the headspace to recover and reflect. There may even be some situations you want to avoid entirely, and that’s OK. If not going or saying “no” is what it takes to avoid possible triggers, then so be it.
For many, Christmas is a cheerful period; an opportunity to come together and celebrate with gifts, food and games. However, for someone with an eating disorder, Christmas brings with it a significant amount of pressure – to join in, eat food that may cause fear and anxiety, and sit with the anxiety that can arise during moments of extended down time. These three tips can help you cope with triggers:
- Plan ahead and do so with the support of loved ones – bravely voice what your triggers may be and, if needed, suggest small adjustments to the host that may help you to feel more comfortable. It is ok to state your needs to others and receive support in getting them met.
- Sit next to someone who is supportive – having someone nearby that you can squeeze if things begin to get challenging can help keep you grounded and in the present. Sometimes just knowing that someone is there beside you is enough.
- Have an escape plan or grounding activities at hand – have a safe space that you can return to for reflection and peace. You could even create a safe word with a family member so that they know you need a time-out and know that they will come and check in with you at certain intervals.
Get more support and advice about navigating the festive season while in recovery from an eating disorder here.
With all these parties and festive gatherings, there can be increased peer pressure to do things you might not feel comfortable with. From drinking alcohol to taking drugs, you could face many triggers over the Christmas season. If you’re worried that a situation like this could arise, you can practice saying ‘no’ in the mirror at home. Shake your head in a definite manner, smile and say, “No, thank you.” The more you practice, the easier it will be to stand up to peer pressure if you need to. Read more about dealing with peer pressure here.
You might feel a bit of a Scrooge for feeling down in the dumps over Christmas but it’s one of the top triggers for low mental health. The TV is a constant source of ‘perfectly happy families’ and friends having festive fun. Beautiful picture-perfect decorations and OTT gifts adorn your social feeds. If you’re already struggling with your mental health, feeling lonely, depressed and down, missing loved ones or are dealing with a family breakup, this is a LOT to absorb.
There are things you can do to feel less lonely this Christmas, including reducing your social media intake, planning special treats for yourself, and talking to someone about how you’re feeling. Don’t suffer in silence – reach out and share your sadness with someone you trust. Discover more ways to tackle loneliness at Christmas here.
Support Over The Christmas Period
If you need to talk to someone during the festive period, here are a few support helplines:
0800 11 11