In the lead up to Christmas we’ve been talking about how this time of the year can be an anxious one for those who are prone to bouts of depression and anxiety.
We’ve consulted our expert Steve Stokes from Australia’s leading mental health and addiction treatment facility, South Pacific Private, and discussed why this time provokes some difficult feelings.
We also look at what we can all do to reach out to those who may be struggling at this time.
Why are we prone to deep self-reflection during this time?
This time of year is all about connection and relationships. All of the images, songs, media and radio shows bombard us with messages of holiday indulgences, happiness and connectivity.
This time of year highlights all of the things that we perceive are missing from our lives. We are faced with a constant barrage of ‘happy and functional families and relationships’ in movies, media and all of the Christmas marketing.
The time of year usually means we cannot hide or avoid the many expectations placed upon us. As a result, many medicate themselves with food/alcohol/cigarettes/being busy and shopping. We put on a happy front so as to fit in with the expectations of us, and how we are to behave at this time of year.
Indeed, if you suffer from depression, anxiety or seasonal anxiety disorder, then this time of year can be full of triggers. It’s really important to have a clear plan of how you will support yourself during this time.
What are the risk factors for seasonal depression, anxiety or addiction? Who is usually affected?
According to recent statistics, up to 45 per cent of Australians will experience a mental health concern in their lifetime. This means it’s likely that someone we know and care for is at risk, that may even be ourselves.
There are, however, some groups who face a higher risk than the general population. These people are those who have experienced relational or developmental trauma or who come from a family where there was abuse or neglect. Christmas can be an especially triggering time for these people.
In addition, if there are addiction issues, the holidays are a time when addiction raises its ugly head. The obvious issues like alcohol, drugs, compulsive overeating and overspending are usually easily apparent. However, the ones that slip under the radar but still have a damaging effect on the individual are things like perfectionism and workaholic tendencies.
The stress these bring to families can be enormous and can lead to rage, communication breakdown, or, in the extreme, domestic violence whether verbal or physical.
The experience of depression or anxiety is a remarkably isolating one. People are stripped of their usual coping skills, their confidence and their capacity to hold on to hope. In the true spirit of the holidays, December and January are important times to let them know they are cared about and loved.
“The things that make a difference in reducing depression are, for the most part, the same things that sustain us all and improve quality of life in general: exercise, support, fulfilling work, relaxation, and good nutrition.”
What signs should we look out for that someone we know may need help during this period?
Some things to look out for are:
- Isolation – when you or a family member avoids family gatherings or social events.
- Rage and anger – specifically, when a family member has a short fuse where they would usually handle things better.
- Problems with sleep and insomnia.
- An over-reliance on food/alcohol/work/exercise.
If someone is behaving out of their zone of ‘typical’ behaviours or is quieter / louder / more aggressive / more remote or solitary than usual, there might be some cause for concern.
“It’s important that you reach out and ask someone if they are ok or need support. It’s also important that you recognise when you are exhibiting these kinds of behaviours and might require the same support yourself.”
What can family and friends do to help people who may be suffering?
When a family member or friend is depressed and anxious at this time, the worst thing that you can do is to tell them to ‘cheer up’, or to ‘get into the Christmas spirit.’
It can be hard, especially because we want them to have a great time. Instead, offer your support, be a trusted confidant, listen without judgement and try to help them to plan how they will cope with the holiday season. It’s also important that you allow them to take the time they need, and to participate at a level at which are comfortable. This may include them missing some of the festivities and you will need to be supportive.
In addition, it might be useful to get some support for yourself. It’s healthy to share your own feelings and stress of living and loving someone with a mental illness.
Finally, consider external options that can assist at this time. Try to have healthy options for food and drink as medicating with sugar and alcohol can lead to feeling worse. Try, also, to plan times for walks or swims to avoid isolation and to ensure that exercise is a factor in your holiday time. I am asked regularly ‘do people really get well from these things?’ The answer is yes. It just takes the time it takes and is different for every person.
It is important to recognise and accept that the ‘bad’ feelings are not the real problem. The feelings are more likely a symptom of an unacknowledged or unresolved problem. It could be something that has happened in the past or that is happening today. It could also be something internal such as your thoughts or beliefs or something external relating to your family or your relationships (or a combination of both.)
Accessing professional help is a demonstration of bravery and wisdom and can help someone to raise their head out of the dark fog they feel they are trapped in, or to find solace from their anxious thoughts, feelings and behaviours. These options can help sufferers to make small steps forward again and to begin to transform their lives.
What are some basic strategies people can use if they find themselves suddenly alone at Christmas and feeling vulnerable?
If you find yourself alone at Christmas, then take good care of yourself. Treat yourself as you would a child: lovingly and with care.
Perhaps you could buy yourself a gift, some nice food and rent some of your favourite comedy movies. Alternatively, you can also consider volunteering somewhere that needs help. A lot of charities are screaming out for that extra pair of hands at this time. Giving to those in need can take your mind off yourself and provide you with a sense of serenity.
Its ok to feel stressed at this time of year, and most of us do, however when it extends beyond the mild stress associated with buying presents, wrapping, cooking and entertaining, it might be time to reflect on whether it’s time to reach out for support.
As a final comment, it’s important that you pay attention to your specific issues and situation at this time of year. How and what you pay attention to is important.
“Above all else, reach out and ask for support if you need it.”
Lifeline Australia 13 11 14 website
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 website