Mental health at Christmas: why it’s not a joyful season for all

If we are to believe the saccharine adverts currently invading our TV screens, Christmas is quite literally ‘The Most Wonderful Time of the Year’. We are encouraged to envisage snuggling by warm fires, gorging at tables heaving with bountiful food, and being overjoyed at seeing a multitude of family and friends. Presents are gladly given and received, and everything is swathed in a warm fuzzy feeling.

But for many people Christmas does not conjure up such images.

It is oft purported that suicide rates increase during the month of December; whether this is statistically accurate is under debate, but the truth remains that for many Christmas is an exceedingly difficult time. Around 200,000 people feel sufficiently distressed to contact The Samaritans each season, and there are many reasons for this.

Being thrown together with family you ordinarily have little contact with can be extremely hard and stressful. Whether unresolved family conflicts come to a head or remain unspoken, uncomfortable undercurrents can pervade the celebrations. Adding alcohol into the mix loosens inhibitions and previously ‘off-limits’ conversations may be revived. Just spending several days or hours cooped up in the same house as others can in itself be stressful; with guests feeling uncomfortable and awkward, and hosts feeling taken advantage of and put-upon.

The financial burdens of Christmas can be devastating to many. When times are hard, the extra expense of presents and food can tip family finances into an untenable situation. This can sadly act as a breaking point for some.

Loneliness is another common cause for mental health problems at this time of year. We think of Christmas as being a time for family, but not everyone has strong family units. Past bereavements can also be felt more acutely at this time of year. Many become isolated over Christmas as their support network disappears for a few days. Elderly people are particularly vulnerable to loneliness at this time of the year.

You only have to switch on the TV or flick through a magazine at the moment, to be bombarded with images of ‘the perfect Christmas’. Many people become so preoccupied with recreating such scenes in their own homes that symptoms of stress and anxiety can occur. Putting excess pressure on yourself not only destroys your own happiness but also can negatively impact those around you.

As Christmas fades, New Year comes thundering along just a few days later. This celebration can also trigger mental health problems. Traditionally New Year is an opportunity to look back over the previous 12 months and make plans for the year ahead. However if this sort of introspection becomes toxic, it can cause excessive self-rumination and feelings of inadequacy. Those with a tendency to these emotions may well struggle more over the New Year period.

If you are worried about your own mental health, especially leading up to the Christmas holidays please see your GP. Don’t be afraid to seek help as you are certainly not alone in your feelings. Alternatively organisations such as The Samaritans have a wealth of useful information and advice.

Dr Jessica Garner, is a GP and health blogger. Visit her blog here.


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