Christmas: it’s a word that brings with it connotations of magic and happiness. A time for family, friends, booze and what seems like a never-ending supply of food. But for a lot of people, finding those feelings of joy is nigh-on impossible and December can be a really lonely and numbing time.
For Jade Braithwaite, 28, it will be the fourth Christmas without her mum and the second without her dad – both of whom sadly passed away. “I’ve always enjoyed Christmas and love decorating our house and watching Christmas films, but since suffering with depression there’s a numbness that comes with it,” she says. “All of my friends are getting excited and making so many plans, but I genuinely just want to stay at home and sleep.”
The build up to this Christmas has been the worst by far, she explains. “I think it’s just a realisation and acceptance that I won’t get to spend another Christmas with either of my parents. I didn’t even want to put a Christmas tree up this year – we have done, but it hasn’t made me feel festive at all.
“I feel like the Grinch! I don’t want any gifts and I don’t want to buy any either.”
Last year, the charity Samaritans urged people to stop striving for a perfect Christmas, after a survey of 1,160 adults in the UK found that 50% had hidden their feelings at Christmas to keep others happy. A separate survey by Mind revealed that nearly 60% of people with mental health problems have experienced panic attacks over the festive period.
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Depression can vary from feelings of sadness, which make everyday activities harder to do and seem less worthwhile, to feeling ready to give up on life altogether.
Alex Staniforth from Kelsall, Cheshire, experienced depression for the first time during the Christmas period of 2011. It was at this time that he was officially diagnosed by a GP. The following year was even more difficult, as he was struggling with bulimia. “Christmas is often a time to reflect, and it sticks a mirror up to remind us of everything we feel we should be, but don’t seem to be able to achieve,” he says. “People around us appear happy and are enjoying themselves so it’s very easy to compare ourselves and feel more isolated.”
The 23-year-old speaker and author says depression can strike at any time of year but there’s something about the cold, dark wintery weather that seems to make things worse, especially as he is someone who finds strength in getting outdoors.
“Depression is a disease of hopelessness and I believe purpose is more powerful than pills,” he says. For Alex it’s all about setting small goals each morning like getting out on a 10 minute walk or maintaining self-care. It’s not always that simple, though. Ryan Williams was diagnosed with depression at the age of 13, however things became so unbearable during the period between Christmas and New Year in 2017 that he tried to take his own life.
“I was in the worst state possible,” the now 21-year-old student from Essex recalls. “My mum happened to come upstairs a few minutes after and thankfully got me help in time.”
"There is a risk that any negative feelings of under-achievement, or the past year not living up to your expectations, are exacerbated.”Dr Natasha Bijlani
That year, Ryan had spent the whole of the festive period feeling numb. “I thought it was just because I was 20 and the novelty of Christmas had worn off,” he explains. But then as he realised New Year was fast approaching, a realisation dawned on him: “I wanted to make good ambitions for the year ahead and see them through… but inside I always knew I wouldn’t be able to because my illness holds me back so much.
“It was about to symbolise the start of the same year of struggling with depression repeating itself over.”
People with anxiety and depression should try to avoid reflecting on the past or contemplating the future come Christmas time, Dr Natasha Bijlani, consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital, Roehampton, advises.
“People tend to look back on what they have achieved and what they haven’t,” she says. “If you are suffering with depression or low self-esteem, there is a real risk that any negative feelings of under-achievement, or the past year not living up to your expectations, are exacerbated.” Instead she recommends trying mindfulness – the act of staying present in the moment.
Ryan still finds Christmas a tiring and emotional struggle and says it’s harder to cope than at other times of the year because the build-up seems to last forever. “The pressure of having to be in the festive spirit even though I may not be feeling mentally well is overwhelming,” he says.
It’s not unusual for feelings to bubble over on Christmas day, too. “To have to sit and watch your little sibling show their gift to you and be happy and interested ... while having a constant or lingering feeling of hopelessness, doubt and sadness is mentally draining.”
It can also be a desperately lonely time. LaTasha Tomay Douglas, from New York, was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2003. For her, Christmas time makes her feel a “deepened intensity of loneliness and unworthiness”. In January, some relief arrives as she focuses on new beginnings.
LaTasha, 47, is a survivor of rape and domestic violence. In 2008, she was sexually assaulted and since then she has redirected her rage into helping others heal from abuse: “What helps is practicing self-care, being proactive by seeing a therapist and being mindful that while I no longer need medication, I still need community,” she says.
If you are struggling this Christmas, Jade, Alex and Ryan have shared their top tips that help them through, with input from psychiatrist Dr Bijlani.
Talk about your feelings. But of course, only if you feel able. Jade says it helps for her to open up to her friends, letting them know how she’s feeling. “It’s easy to forget to check in on people – I’m guilty too – but once your friends know how you feel, they tend to be more present.”
Avoid alcohol. “Drinking excessively over Christmas will impact on mood and anxiety,” Dr Bijlani says, so try and cut down or ditch it completely if you can.
Practise kindness. Volunteering can give people a real sense of purpose and make a difference to someone else’s day, says Dr Bijlani. Jade agrees. “Helping others helps me, like today I’m having a good day because I’m making my friends who are new parents a lasagne.”
Focus on self-care. For Jade, doing things like painting her nails and having a bath can be really helpful for boosting mood.
Don’t overeat. Dr Bijlani says eating too much throughout December can also introduce feelings of guilt and low self-esteem. Ryan agrees: “This year I have been eating right so as not to feel sluggish.”
Exercise. Physical activity can be a really positive influence for people with depression and is very much advised by health experts. Alex swears by it: “As an endurance athlete, training is very important to me. Even when depression steals enjoyment in everything else and makes the first step so difficult, it’s hard not to see the world in a more positive light after a run or time outside.”
Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. The pressure to fit in can be intense and while it is important to get out and about and mix with other people, Dr Bijlani says that it’s important not to beat yourself up if you turn down an invite or make an excuse to leave early.
Get some sleep. Try not to watch TV in bed or watch videos on a laptop, tablet or phone, as it can make you feel more awake. “Charge your phone and devices outside your room and don’t use the alarm on your phone as an excuse to keep your phone by your bed,” Dr Bijlani says. Screens on phones and tablets emit light that is blue enriched and therefore influences the body’s ability to sleep.
Stick to a plan with your medication. For people on antidepressants, it’s important to keep taking them and not come off suddenly. Ryan says: “I’m being really strict to not miss my medication and be consistent with the times I take it... Remembering to be consistent with my medication could mean the difference between a good or a bad Christmas.”
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: email@example.com
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org.