It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Except when it isn’t.
It’s not uncommon to feel dread come December. Sure, some people will look forward to the festive pile-up of cooking, eating, entertaining, socialising and decorating that’s part and parcel of the season. “But, very often Christmas can be a very tricky time of year, when the reality doesn’t live up to the Christmas fantasy and all it holds with it,” says accredited psychotherapist Lucy Fuller.
The impending sense of doom may be amplified if a person is grieving, already struggling with their mental health, or lonely. And with Covid-19 in the mix, many might be feeling panic at the changes to the “holly, jolly season” – particularly if they live to socialise. December dread affects extroverts as much as introverts.
A new survey by the Samaritans revealsbeing separated from family and friends ones over the Christmas period is one of the biggest concerns facing callers.
The survey of 1,400 of the charity’s volunteers found that, over the past three months, around a quarter (27%) have spoken to callers who were feeling concerned about their own wellbeing over the winter and festive period.
December dread is “much more common this year because of lockdown,” says Gregori Savva, a psychotherapist who runs Counselling Twickenham.
The winter months can seem to stretch on forever, and be dark and cold, with little opportunity to exercise and make the most of the limited daylight – all of these things, in addition to poor diet, can contribute to us feeling low, he says.
“Obviously December and Christmas are a time for many people to build a sense of dread,” he says. “The nervous system has been dulled by the cold, wet days of winter. And like all mammals we are preparing for the dark days ahead.
“The lack of light limits the production of melanin and Vitamin D, which regulate how much sleep we get, the efficiency of our metabolism and digestive system. A lack of vitamin D also lowers our immune system and makes us more susceptible to winter respiratory diseases.”
All in all, not conducive to us feeling great.
What can you do to fight December dread?
Make plans and stick to them. “My advice would be to plan ahead in terms of making social contact over Christmas,” says Fuller. “If you let your low mood take over, in anticipation of a having a miserable time over the Christmas period, then the Christmas holiday will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
She urges people to arrange to meet friends or loved ones for a walk or to exercise somewhere away from home – and to have wider family Zoom sessions together involving games and quizzes you can all participate in online.
“Plan your Christmas day and Boxing day with your favourite food, films and activities,” she adds. And don’t forget to turn off your phone, too – use this period to have a few ‘me’ days. You could treat yourself to an at-home spa day, sort your wardrobe out, or plan what you’d like to do next year.
“2020 has been dire, but 2021 has to be better, as the vaccine is rolled out and society will slowly creep back to how it ‘should’ be,” Fuller adds.
If money is fuelling your feelings of dread, it’s best to be honest with those close to you about your financial situation. Lots of people will be in the same boat this year, says Ruairí Stewart, a psychotherapist known as the Happy-Whole Coach.
“The pandemic has not been financially kind to many of us, meaning pressures around spending money could feel even more distressing this year,” he says.
“If this is the case for you, communicate your fears to those around you and express that, though you would buy them the world if you could, this year will have to be toned down. Try to own your experience and alleviate any feelings of shame – you never know, someone unexpected might be feeling the same.”
Instead of buying presents, you could agree to a gift swap, where you swap something you own and love with something they own and love – a favourite jumper, for examples, or a throw or ornament. You could make them a gift instead of buying something, bake them an edible present (some cookies, mince pies, or a cake), or just agree to meet up and spend time together.
Mindfulness exercises which focus on ‘observing’ your physical sensations through meditative exercises could also help alleviate feelings of dread, suggests Savva. “This is not about achieving perfect calm and equilibrium, but acknowledging and accepting the physical sensation in your body and the emotional ebbs and flows they create.”
You might want to try some slow, deep breathing; stretching out the tense muscles in your neck, shoulders and back; or more rigorous exercises to increase your breathing and heart rate, he suggests.
Getting outside in daylight (try a lunchtime walk each day), eating three balanced meals a day and exercising can also help lift your spirits.
When to seek professional help
It’s best to seek help before the feelings of dread become overwhelming, says Savva. This might be when you notice that you are feeling hyper-vigilant (nervy irritable and on edge) for much of your day, or if you often find yourself in numb, dissociative states, cut off from your emotions and disconnected from others.
“Counsellors and psychotherapists can help you develop sensory awareness of physical sensations, emotions and behavioural strategies to get you through these difficult times,” he says.
You can access a limited number of therapy sessions for free via the NHS’s IAPT serviceor find private therapists through sites such as Counselling Directory and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
If you find yourself getting to the point where you are completely unable to motivate yourself and you’re experiencing very low mood, you need to seek emergency help, says Fuller, who recommends the NHS’s Emergency Mental Health Helpline (dial 111 or find a local helpline number here) or to call Samaritans on 116123.
Between December 1 last year and January 1 this year, Samaritans responded to more than a quarter of a million calls for help – over 10,000 calls for help were made on Christmas Day alone.
Jason, 50, from Reading, recalls how his whole world fell apart one Christmas after struggling with his mum’s death, breaking up with the mother of his son and losing his job.
“The hardship faced by people trying to cope with the pandemic reminds me how overwhelming everything became for me at Christmas, to the point that I didn’t feel or see there was a benefit to being here,” he says. ”Thankfully my ex-wife noticed my struggles and convinced me to pick up the phone to Samaritans.
“Although it was one of the hardest things I have done – that phone call changed my life and put me on a new path. I had completely lost my way in life before the call. Samaritans gave me hope and helped me to find my purpose again. For me, it was the smallest thing with the greatest outcome.”
He concludes: “Our own self-care this Christmas and beyond is so important. Take each day as it comes, have strength to reach out for support in times of need; for me that would be the best gift anyone could give themselves.”
The most common two worries were being separated from loved ones – and how to cope with being lonely or alone this Christmas.