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Coping at Christmas

The Christmas holidays it can be difficult for a number of reasons. I often have conversations with clients about how to manage Christmas so if you can take one message from this blog it is that no matter how alone you feel in your circumstance there is someone out there who gets it. This blog is some of the things I most commonly discuss in sessions, so whilst not every piece of advice will be applicable to what works for you or your situation, my aim is to give an overview so that you pick and choose what you will find helpful.

From 20 years of working in mental health, this blog is an overview of some of the most common challenges with some strategies to help.

For a shorter read a few years ago I wrote a blog: The 12 days of Christmas survival guide

1) Avoidance or denial of the difficulties

Often we will avoid thinking about the challenges, this works as a great short-term strategy in managing the stress but longer term it means that each year the avoidance of thinking about the holidays allows nothing to change. Even by contemplating what you find hard, you are making steps towards breaking this avoidance.

We might also have experienced a lack of validation about our difficulties. Just because others can’t acknowledge, it does not mean it is not your experience. You do not have control over how others view you or your challenges but you do get to choose are you going to communicate and share with these people:

a) What you find hard

b) The impact of this on you

c) What the impact of their response has on you

d) How you are going to respond to them.

Remember this is a choice. It is your information and it is up to you if you feel safe enough to give it.

2) Comparing how you feel to how you think you should feel.

There are significant messages everywhere about connection and joy. Not everyone feels this way, When we compare how we feel to the external messages it can have negative impact on mental health. Research has shown that by measuring our own happiness we can actually make ourselves more depressed.

Strategy: Give yourself permission to take a break from social media, sentimental films and TV adverts.

Strategy: Once of the most powerful ways of improving our mental health is to accept and feel what we are actually experiencing. Acceptance is not a form of giving up or becoming passive. Acceptance is a way of being honest which then allows us to be in a position in which we can then address the feelings by choosing how to respond to them. Acceptance can be formed by noticing and acknowledging our experience, we might even want to write it down or say it outloud.

3) Expectations

There are often significant expectations either from others or ones that we have places on ourselves. Recognise any rules that have been created. A rule is usually identified because it will include “I must” or “I should”. For example, “I must visit my family”, “I should buy that gift”, “I should be willing to sit in the living room with the rest of the family and ignore that I am overwhelmed”

Strategy: A simple but flexible response is to change the “I must or “I should” to “I could”. This suddenly creates flexibility and allows the phrase to rule to change into a question which allows you to say no to it. For example “I should be willing to sit in the living room” can be changed to “I could sit in the living room and ignore my sensory needs”. The goal of this isn’t always to stop the behaviour but to allow you to practice noticing the rules and creating space for you to create alternative choices.

Some questions to ask yourself to help create a more concrete plan may be:

“How do you feel you should perform in the situation”

“Do you feel like you should not assert boundaries and why is this”

“what obligations do you have that are no longer needed”

“What help do you accept from others”

“What could you do less of and what would be the impact of this”

“what could you do more of and what would be the impact of this”

3) Changes in routine.

Pretty much everyone I have ever met has had some sort of pattern to their day. Regardless of much or how little productivity or meaning your day has had chances are a lot of what you do is habitual. Humans like habits, it makes things predictable, it means we don’t have to take up head space with planning and carrying out certain tasks. If you put your coat on you will put the same arm through the same sleeve in the same order each time, it’s something done so frequently that it becomes habit. All these habits become shortcuts so when suddenly the short cut is not there it can be much harder. Some of your habits might be transferrable but chances are that they will be disrupted.

Strategies: First of all recognise how and when you can get the helpful habits back. This can be reassuring and remind you that you don’t need to miss them for too long.

Planning can also help: more on that later.

Also not all change is bad, sometimes the habits we have created for ourselves can become unhelpful. You can view this natural change in routine as a chance to actively find alternative ways of doing things that might be more helpful. Being flexible is a useful skill.

4) Not getting on with family / unhealthy relationships.

Unhealthy family relationships can manifest in so many ways that it is not possible to account for every family experience within one blog. There are so many unhealthy ways people relate to each other, connect, communicate or avoid. Some people within the dynamic may not be able or willing to recognise unhealthy, controlling or abusive behaviour.

You are not in control of other people’s behaviour. A lot of self help will indicate that you can only be in control of your own behaviour… whilst this be true some of the time it’s important to recognise that that when we are really triggered our actions can often be quicker than our thought or emotion process.

It does not matter how much “adulting” or self-development work you have done on yourself, when you are in a tricky home environment we can quickly experience fight, flight, freeze or flop.


It can help to recognise where your none negotiables are, how you wish to communicate them and how you are going to respond if these boundaries are ignored.

I find the ACT ChoicePoint is a helpful tool for managing these situations. Think about your values and how you can behave I a way that is aligned with your values. When thinking though a plan of how to behave, a common trap is to underestimate how hard it is to function when there are unpleasant emotions or sensations such as anxiety or depression. Remember to take this into account when you are thinking about how you want to behave; being realistic, recognising the difficulty and being kind about your limitations means it is more likely you will create a plan for how to behave that is realistic.

Focus on what you can control. Sometimes rather than getting involved in the dynamic being the “observer” who is stepping back and noticing what is going on can put you in a good position to pause and work out a way to manage. Someone once described it to me as “be the grey rock”. Another way I like to think about it rather than rather than being the pieces off chess constantly moving and adjusting, be the chess board, it has an overview and observes the battles but does not get involved in trying to win or lose.

You can’t control the outcome but you can allow yourself to work at being true to yourself and your needs.

No matter what your roles in daily life may be, when spending time with family people may revert back to longstanding roles, It’s not usual for adult children to feel like a much younger version of themselves as roles within families are often well practiced, reinforced and quickly reoccur when people are placed back together. Recognise the roles you take on and how you respond to these roles. E.g. the person who always blends into the background, the apologiser / peacemaker, the person who has to be the decision maker. Once you recognise your role you can think about how you can be the person you want to be and not fall into old roles that may not be healthy for your mental health.

5) Reminders of loss or trauma.

The expectation of Christmas can create a sense of dread. It can be due to memories of past events or because we often use key dates as a benchmark.

If you know your triggers do what you can to mitigate for them and allow yourself recovery and self care before and after. Find someone to talk to who understands, it can sometimes be hard to find people you know who will be objective so use charities to support

For people abused in childhood NAPAC can listen and signpost

For bereavement CRUSE

For text Support: Text Shout to 85285

6) Sensory overload

Everyone has different sensory needs and these can change throughout the day dependant on the activity and demands. , some of us need bright lights, busy environment and multisensory experiences to get us going , others are sensitive and need reduced movement, visual, touch, sounds, taste. Our patterns might vary across the day and our different senses might need more or less. For me, anything that tilts my head lower than my heart is stimulating, so if I am feeling like I need to get going a downward dog yoga pose may help me organise my thoughts, but if I have been in a busy noisy place then it would be overloading.

If you plan your routine allow it to meet your sensory needs. If you have not planned, allow yourself to adapt or adjust, its OK to put noise cancelling headphones on or to go for a quiet walk alone, its OK to not put decorations up, its OK to have all the decorations and to keep moving them around as you enjoy the change.

7) Food

Food can be tricky for a number of reasons. It can be due to an eating disorder, sensory preferences, impact on health, or relationship with diet culture.

Beat has worked with the NHS to provide information for support and advice for Christmas. This includes:

  • serve food as a buffet rather than as sit-down meals

  • minimise the social expectations of people with eating disorders over the festive season

  • treat meals on and around Christmas Day as routinely as possible

  • plan well ahead and think about how food features in your days

  • once dinner is over, shift the focus on to other activities like playing games or watching a family film

make loved ones aware to avoid questions about weight or appetite

More details are on the BEAT website as well as tips written by people with eating disorders.

If you are in a position where people at Christmas don’t respect, this or you are not able to adhere to the ways you usually manage your eating disorder / sensory needs. It is worth practising any anxiety management strategies that you have, and thinking about what sensory experiences can soothe you. E.g. a gentle walk, quiet, and music. Recognise that if you relapse / your eating disorder gets worse / you go into sensory overload how you will respond to this and practice setting your boundaries for yourself about how you can look after yourself.

Eating disorders can be tricky, there can be parts of you that wants to find Christmas hard, because if its hard you might let your eating disorder take control and you might lose weight etc… remember this desire is also part of the eating disorder. Be kind to it but don’t let it dictate what you can or can’t do.

8) Finances:

Finances can be tricky, cards, transport, gifts, and heating all cost money. It is not unusual to want to ignore the money side as it can feel stressful to look at it. By facing the stress, and looking at your bank account, it may raise anxiety but that anxiety is useful as its there to tell you to address the issue. It may be that you need to set a budget, to speak to utility companies about payment support or contact step change or citizen's advice about managing debt. If you are in debt helplines can be incredibly useful and I often hear people think that they aren't for them but then afterwards say they wished they had spoken to one sooner.

As much as people say, don’t get into dept the social pressure to see people, give gifts, and provide food and warmth is always ramped up at Christmas. Money is something people tend to not speak about or minimise the impact of, but we know that dept or feeling hopeless about money can lead to low mood. Ironically and unhelpfully shopping , spending money and giving gifts to others is often used as unhelpful tool to try and feel better.

Modern banks such as starling and Monzo as they give visual charts as to what you are spending, allow you to create spaces so you can compartmentalise money.

Find other creative and free ways of getting the feel good hit, such as taking photos, doing a random act of kindness such as regifting a book you have enjoyed, volunteering some time to a charity.

9) Being alone:

Whilst being alone at Christmas can be a wonderfully liberating thing regardless if it is a choice is can be lonely. It is worth thinking about how you manage loneliness. Facebook groups often have local businesses post up that they will be open to meet people who are alone at Christmas. If you feel daunted about going somewhere message the business in advance to find out what you can expect. If going somewhere in person is too hard look for #joinin on twitter.

if it is not through choice,

Overall strategies: Before the holiday.

  • Plan ahead.

  • Jot down on a calendar any places you have agreed to go

  • Make a list of any additional tasks that Christmas can bring.

  • Identify the things that are currently helping you. I don’t mean the big things either, we often don’t have many of those. Sometimes it is the small things that matter such as time alone, connection with someone who understands you, a set plan or a predictable order to the things you do in your day.

  • Recognise why these things are helping. – what needs are ?hey fulfilling.

  • Once you know the need, this helps you decide what your boundaries are going to be about getting these needs met.

  • Be kind if planning is hard to do and you find yourself avoiding, make a choice as to if you want to continue avoiding or you want to make an action towards change. If actions seem to big break it down into the smallest 60 second thing you could do and take a moment to do this.

  • Recognise any expectations that you have or standards that you are holding yourself to

  • Recognise in advance if things can't be done or maintained in a way you would like them to be done then consider how either the situation can be adjusted or how you can be flexible towards the change.

  • Make choices as to if you are saying yes, yes but with help, no or delegating.

Overall strategies: During the holiday

  • Check-in with yourself and allow yourself to evaluate what is working for what has become unhelpful.

  • Be flexible, if you need to change your plans that’s OK.

  • Recognise this feeling is temporary.

  • Practice communicating your boundaries with others.

  • Recognise if you are catastrophising or having other unhelpful thinking patterns and recognise these for what they are: Thoughts not the truth.

  • If you find yourself getting caught up in trying to mitigate and control everything remember that there will always be things not within your control and sometimes trying to control everything becomes a way of avoiding anxiety or other unpleasant experiences.

  • Allow yourself to be flexible enough to feel the discomfort, it may be telling your something is important, recognise if the emotion fits the situation and how you can respond to it in a way that helps you.

Overall strategies: After the holiday

  • Think through what was helpful and what was unhelpful, what can you take from this experience?

  • Give yourself time to get back into helpful routines

  • Be kind if it doesn’t go to plan, things not going to plan is all part of working out strategies for stress and developing a repertoire of ways to respond that are flexible and helpful.

Sarah is an Occupational Therapist and personal trainer who is passionate about helping people flourish @MoodLifterPT She is always happy to be contacted if you want to find out more.

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