Surviving the Festive Season Part Two: Strategies for getting through it

tg-1-12In part one of this series I looked at all the things that make Christmas and other festival times so stressful. Here in part two I’m offering suggestions on how to make the experience easier to manage.

I’ve been discussing this a lot recently, and several big stressors have emerged: finances, competition with others, and the sense of obligation. Some people prepare for this time of year as if it wasn’t Christmas day coming on 25th December, but a large asteroid. So this piece is my personal take on how you might manage a potentially difficult Christmas.

Further down there are links to various advice and charity sites. (If you’re expecting to have a happy and relaxed time and none of this applies, maybe you know someone who might benefit from something I’ve written here.)

Some of my thoughts here come in the form of questions. They may not have a specific answer, but I hope that reflecting on them will make things feel less overwhelming.

MENTALLY PREPARE

• Can you identify what it is you do and don’t like about this time of year? You might feel more in control if you can identify which aspects you can just about tolerate, and which ones you would avoid/abandon if you could. Are you in a position to act on this?

If you do feel able to act, put your foot down early. One way to think about it is to imagine opening the doors and windows in your life and finally letting a breeze through – ie, saying a great big ‘no’. Practise this.

• If you’re feeling a sense of reluctant obligation, reflect on what you really owe to anyone? Also, do you feel that anyone owes anything to you?

• If your mental state means careful rationing of what you do, honour this if you can by planning in advance. If you find yourself without the energy to do this, can someone else organise things for you?

• Can you arrange something to look forward to after Christmas as a reward? Seeing a person you don’t see often, or a trip somewhere?

• If you know things are going to be difficult, can you ask available friends if they are okay with you texting them during the day if it all gets too much?

• If you cannot drum up any positive feelings at all, can you visualise Christmas as the monstrous birthday party of someone you loathe but must appease? Or perhaps imagine you are in some hideous panto or whodunnit?

SHARE YOUR FEELINGS

• Asking for help, or just sharing how you feel, can seem like a radical and terrifying act. But the chances are you are not alone.

• Can you talk to the others around you about your feelings about this time of year? Do the people closest to you agree with you? You may find that no one else has had the courage to say what they have been feeling all along, and through your words you have potentially rescued them too.

WAYS TO ESCAPE

Travel – Can you leave the country? Flights, especially long haul ones, go up hugely in price over this period, so the cost may well be prohibitive. If a holiday is out of reach, is some kind of physical escape possible? A working holiday, a retreat of some kind, or a house or cat-sit?

Work – Can you hide behind work? Selflessly offer to take others’ shifts? Suddenly take on a big pile of freelance? (If, of course, it’s out there).

Charity work – There are lots of ways to volunteer at Christmas, such as Crisis.  If you’re in London, Londonist has a good list of places where you could offer to help out over the holiday period.

Invented scenarios (ok, lying) – Normally, I would not suggest you engage in dishonesty. However, in this case, if you have to lie to get out of a situation that you absolutely do not want and which may be actively harmful to you, (and you absolutely cannot tell the truth because that would be even more harmful to you), you are in a way being more authentic, so I would not condemn it. Your safety comes first. If you are going to do this, I should remind you that the backstories may take work, as well as getting any collaborators on board, so this is not for the faint hearted.

• Illness – a new one or a flareup of an existing one – or an accident or disaster. (But then you may be fending off offers of help which could take you back to square one. This one is best used when you were going to have to take a long journey.)

• The sudden illness/disaster of someone close to you, who needs your help. Is this ‘wrong’? I return to my points about authenticity and safety.

• Pretending you are away when you are not, and you are in fact staying quietly in your home with the telly. A woman wrote somewhere that if anyone asked her what she was doing for Christmas, she would say, ‘Oh, it’s just going to be the three of us on the sofa,’ neglecting to mention that the other two were in fact her cats.

IF YOU CANNOT GET AWAY

MONEY 

This is the tough bit. Christmas is supposed to be about giving, yes? Perhaps, but not to your own detriment.

• How early can you start preparing? (Some people buy things in the sales for the next Christmas). So a huge January to-do list might make you feel more in control. Can you pay for anything in instalments? (Bearing in mind the increased cost over time and the cost of borrowing in general.)

• Ask people to bring food over instead of providing it all yourself. I’ve noticed that potluck dinners have got a lot more common since the recession. For low-cost recipes, try Jack Monroe, Netmums budget recipes, Gluten Free on a Shoestring. Also, the Gluten free vegan.

• Have a secret santa with strict budget attached. (Depending on the configuration of the people you will be with, you don’t even have to assign a person to give a present to – you could distribute them lucky dip style.)

Here’s a piece from Netmums about benefit dates over Christmas, with lots of advice on budgeting. Money Saving Expert has a Christmas forum where people ask for and give advice. Crafting isn’t for everyone, but (time and everything else allowing) could you make, or cook, something instead? 60 great alternatives to toys has some useful discussion points about presents for children.

• Beware vouchers, sales, and ‘bargains’. Money Saving Expert again has some tips on end of year savings. All sorts of shenanigans goes on with pricing during sale times, and some shops buy things in for sales that they don’t normally sell. Once upon a time I read that this was all illegal, but the goalposts seem to have moved considerably.

• Be proud of what you do make or bring. If there is a financial disparity between you and others, can you talk about it? it’s essential to lay down boundaries early so there are no misunderstandings. This is even more important if you have children. Ditto if you are the one with more money than the rest. If you are in this fortunate position, try to remember the stress people go through when they don’t have enough but are expected to put on a show. If you suggest a restaurant or other activity that costs money, and there is an awkward silence, frozen faces, or ripple of embarrassment, there is your answer. Again, if you are in a fortunate position but don’t want to show off or make others feel awkward, is there anything you could do for anyone in private?

DIFFICULT OR ABUSIVE PEOPLE

• We joke about ‘drunk uncle and racist auntie’ but you may be stuck with them for the day, or the entire week. You could try to imagine bedtime, or going home, as a beautiful forest or beach that you are slowly walking towards. If this sounds too hippy, can you plan something for afterwards that you can look forward to and think about?

• Can you find others in the same boat as you so you feel less alone? When you look online, you might not find someone with your exact problem immediately, but this tends to be the nature of problems. We think our issues are unique and this keeps us isolated.

• There may be people who don’t recognise your gender/sexuality/relationship/lifestyle/work and are either rude to you about it or actively threatening. The Albert Kennedy Trust works to help young (16-25) LGBT people who are homeless or living in a hostile environment. London Friend and Switchboard LGBT (also UK-wide) provide telephone support.

• You may be experiencing, or fearing, domestic violence. Refuge and Women’s Aid charities support women and children experiencing domestic abuse.  ManKind supports male survivors, and Respect supports both men and women, and has a helpline for anyone who is carrying out abuse too. Galop is an LGBT domestic violence charity. You can contact them by phone, email or live chat.

ANNIVERSARIES AND LOSSES

• If you have experienced a major loss this year, or are having the anniversary of one, your first duty is to yourself, and then to anyone vulnerable you care for. There is a lot of advice online about dealing with loss, which can be amplified by experiencing the enforced joyfulness around you. Cancer Research UK has some information on coping with grief. Cruse is the main UK bereavement charity. They offer help by phone, email, or in person.

• Distractions can be good – if this feels right, you could fill your home with a manageable number of hand-picked people, (or arrange a number of visits or meet ups) – but let your feelings guide you, and let others take the strain.

• Can a friend or family member take you in? Would you allow them to?

• The loss may not be a person, but a negative change in circumstances (loss of job, home or relationship), or a beloved animal companion. These can all have powerful fallout that needs a grieving process – again, put yourself first.

FAMILY ESTRANGEMENT

• You may be estranged from family. There is a charity, Standalone, that supports people in this situation. They have a detailed festive survival guide.

• Even if you are totally happy about your choice, this time of year may bring on all sorts of concerned and potentially exposing questioning. While ‘none of your business’ may be the appropriate response, this may only inflame the questioner and cause all eyes to be on you if you are in a group. Saying someone is are ‘away’ may be enough. (Again remembering to craft your story – Australia? But where in Australia?) Total honesty may torpedo the conversation, or it may induce a further flood of questioning.

• One thing I’ve noticed in the last few years is that whenever an online problem page deals with family estrangement, very few people are judgemental (bucking a trend, it must be said), and many will share similar stories. The Guardian has a good range of articles on family estrangement and going no contact. From all my reading, a fair number of people choose to go no contact, and many more wish they had made that decision long ago.

13 things no estranged child needs to hear on Mother’s Day – this is actually very good advice on what not to say to someone who is estranged from any family member, and could equally apply to Christmas or any other festival. [NB: the link is currently broken – the piece is still somewhere out there though.]

INTOXICATION

• Alcohol and drugs (over the counter, prescribed or illegal) give and take at the same time. They may be all you have to get you through a challenging day. I would not necessarily recommend someone sober up for its own sake for a difficult Christmas unless you or those around you would be in immediate danger, or unless you need to remain alert and/or are driving. If you want to make a fresh start in the new year, a charity like Addaction can help.

• Bear in mind you say and do things when intoxicated that you would not when sober. Some of it can never be taken back.

• Some people change personality when intoxicated and become incredibly unpleasant, angry or violent. This doubles during festive periods. If this is you, you need to stop. If this feels too hard, you may want to try cutting down or stopping. I have expressed many reservations about the 12 step/anonymous movement as a whole, but I know it has helped some people. You could try Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or another 12 step meeting. You will find community there and a great variety of human experience.

• If you have given up drinking previously, this is a challenging time and you may wish to refer further back in this article for ways to escape Christmas. If anyone comes at you with ‘Oh, can’t you just have one?’ or rudely interrogates you about why you stopped, keep remembering why you did it.

• If you are presented with the prospect of a Christmas with a relative who has a drink problem that threatens your safety, or the safety of someone else, you are under no obligation to participate. Your duty, again, is to yourself.

SOCIAL MEDIA

• In part one I described the various irritations on social media – other peoples’ photos of festive bounty, and their urge to tell you how blessed they are. Do not feel guilty about muting/unfollowing them for a few days. If it’s a friend who you basically like, you can always just send them a nice message so you don’t feel guilty. These networks are valuable, particularly if you are alone, so a few tweaks will make them bearable until it all blows over.

• You could start a secret group on Facebook, or create a locked Twitter account, so you can share with a few people who feel the same way as you, and let off steam.

SPENDING THE DAY ALONE

• If you’re going to be happily, consensually on your own on December 25th, Christmas day alone can be great. Your time, your choice.

• If you’re reluctantly, non-consensually alone, (and don’t have anywhere to go) it can feel terrible. Perhaps you just want to sleep? That’s okay. Or go on a huge walk. Write. Work. Is there anyone at all you can contact? Ignore the day and do your usual routine and make it a day like any other?

THINGS NOT TO SAY TO SOMEONE WHO IS STRUGGLING

• ‘It’s only one day.’

• ‘X is just insecure.’

• ‘What did you get?’

• ‘Where’s Y?’ or ‘Why aren’t you with Z?’

• ‘Can’t you just deal with it?’

• ‘You’ll be fine.’

If you’re still reading, I hope this was helpful.

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Can you really choose how you feel?

Sunrise North London‘It’s Tuesday. I call it ‘Choose-Day’ – because I can CHOOSE how I feel today!’

Never mind that’s it’s actually Friday. I see this kind of attitude lurking around online just a bit more than I’m comfortable with and, given that we are now entering a very challenging time of year for mental health and emotions generally, I thought I’d look a bit harder at it.

I can only speak from my own experience, but I think this is the worst ‘inspirational saying’ I have ever seen. If you know a more florid example of the genre, please send it over. I ought to have a Christmas competition, but you’d have to try very hard to beat that one. I suspect it’ll be me getting the Quality Street, but I remain open.

I am, for the moment, being lighthearted. And I should emphasise that I’m not knocking every just-for-today expression that’s ever been. In crisis, sometimes they’re all you have to cling to.

But – you can choose how you feel? Really? Others clearly subscribe to this view, as evidenced by articles with names like ‘10 Habits of Highly Unhappy People.’ There are quite a few of them around and they’re not difficult to find.

Great! You might think. We all fall into negative thinking and need a bit of a push out of it, don’t we? And actually, these articles often contain reasonable advice and appear on the surface to be well-intentioned. In a nutshell: don’t criticise or gossip, stop comparing yourself with others, don’t ruminate on the past, stop worrying about the future, stop feeling afraid, let go of your anger, look after your body, learn to trust people, stop focusing on the negatives, stop blaming others, express gratitude more, relax, and just be happy.

I can’t argue with any of this. In many ways, these lists are factually, existentially, correct.

But, as someone working in mental health, I experience increasing concern as I read through them.

They imply, or state directly, that feelings about your life and your place in the world are entirely your own choice. In different ways they flag the person’s apparent inner negativity as a reason for their problems, and how they may even be enjoying their misery.

Worst of all, not a single one that I’ve seen contains references to difficulties external to the individual: anything from abuse as a child, to poverty, to physical or mental illness, to violence, to relationship breakdown, to having no work, to experiencing discrimination because of your race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, body type or anything else, and to experiencing a downturn in circumstances because of the recession we have all been experiencing for the last five years. Not a whisper.

I’ve seen too many depressed and anxious people fighting feelings like these, whatever their circumstances. I have, once upon a time, been there myself.

And the trouble with telling someone that they have chosen their feelings, is that if you bothered to look deeper into the individual person, you might actually see the pain and trauma they have suffered. I would then challenge you to tell them they had chosen their sacking, eviction, cancer or rape, because deep down, they wanted it.

Am I being a bit melodramatic here? Human motivations are complex. Sometimes we use problems as a form of defence when life gets too hard. We retreat into illness, or hide in the past, or paralyse ourselves with fear. There will be an old script at work in here, but it is way more complex than mere choice. You cannot moralise or shame negative feelings away.

So what do we have choice over? We can choose how we outwardly react. Perhaps not in the moment, but after some reflection. We can decide what we are going to work on to make a situation different. We can be mindful of our words and actions and their impact on others. We can see if there is any possibility of acceptance of any of our difficulties, just to remove the charge from them. (All that I have just said assumes our mental health is strong enough to do this.)

There is lots we can do, but choosing our feelings, I think, is not one of them.


Surviving the Festive Season Part One: What makes it so stressful?

tg-1-7This is the first in a series of posts about getting through the holiday period. Christmas is the festival I grew up with, and the one that is the hardest to miss in the UK as it approaches, but I think much of this could apply to any other celebration where people come together over a holiday period who might not normally spend time with each other.

Needless to say, if you totally and unequivocally love these festive times, and find my question above odd or incongruous, these posts may not be for you. But you may know someone who might find them useful.

So, why does the holiday season affect so many of us so badly? And why do we continue to let it?

Positives
There are lots of potentially enjoyable things about festival periods. I am pro end-of-year (or any other time) coming together in front of fires, candles, dancing and wearing sparkly clothing. I love sitting around, not working (if possible), eating piles of food, and going for walks. As long as I can choose exactly where I am and who I am with. (That last point is crucial.)

Negatives
Those are just the nice bits. The holiday season is also, at its worst, part of the Shopping Industrial Complex, with a hearty dollop of pseudo-religiosity, dubious cultural blackmail, and coercive encouragement to spend money. Many people I know start to express dread as autumn turns to winter. Sometimes they only express it privately because such ‘negativity’ may earn them a telling off from some of their friends.

So, in this piece I am trying to unpack what it is about Christmas and other holidays that makes them so challenging. For sure, every one of the challenges has an opposite number which, for balance, I will name here: happiness, excitement, thrilling anticipation, delight at old favourites being brought out, (whether tree decorations, films, or distant relatives you adore). The joy of giving. The joy of receiving. A wonderful religious (or secular) celebration. Snow (real or artificial). Singing. Community. Hearing about the wonderful time everyone else is having and being happy for them because you are happy too. The delight in sharing your own abundance. Feasting. Love. Family. Connection. But this isn’t why you’re reading this.

 

Nine ways the festive season can make us stressed (Really, more like 99.)

The lead-up

• The long, long lead-up that seems to get longer every year. Those first sleigh bells, those first red, green and white themed designs, the incongruous appearance of seasonal food displays among the discount picnic sets. These chirping canaries are almost impossible to avoid, even if you have no internet, TV or radio.
• Consequent expectations: of the world, of others, of yourself.
• The sense that you must hide any negative feelings about it all.

Money

• Holiday spending was never easy for many people. In the last few years, things have become catastrophic. The pressure to spend a lot, be seen to do so, and the accompanying pressure to receive as much as possible, can put intolerable pressure on people. ‘What did you get?’ is a heartsink of a question. Morale can drop further at its frequent follow-up: ‘I got so much stuff! I’m so blessed!’  (See also birthdays).
• If you have children there will be a lot of added pressure. Ditto, and doubled, if there is financial inequality in your family or peer group.

Relationships

• You may not wish to spend time with blood relatives or in laws who you find challenging or actively abusive.
• You may be struggling to deal with your own immediate family for the same reason.
• The pressure to be in a relationship with someone, anyone, to avoid the shame of singlehood, becomes paramount. Normative relationships are particularly pushed at this time of gift-giving.
• If you have children and have split from the person you were parenting with, you may have to do more stressful negotiation than usual about the time you all spend together.
• If you are single, you may feel obliged to perform acts of charity, such as volunteering, to compensate for your purportedly selfish lifestyle.
• You may have few personal relationships and feel increasingly isolated at this time.

Being geographically trapped

• One of the vagaries of living in the UK/London is that there is no public transport on Christmas day. It makes planning a real headache. Taxis are expensive. Railway companies often use holiday periods as a time to fix their networks as well. (I’m aware it’s a public holiday, but many people do work that day.)
• Situations that you can manage for two or three hours may swiftly become overwhelming if they involve staying the night or relying on the kindness/sobriety of others for a lift home.
• The same goes for people having an expectation of visiting you, in numbers or for lengths of time that are challenging.

Emotional triggers

• Memories of people who we have lost, and happier times long gone.
• Doubled if there is an anniversary of a loss around this time, or the loss is within the last year.
• Overwhelming proximity to people we find anything from challenging to actively abusive.
• Highly charged atmospheres.
• Loneliness.
• Feeling obliged to adopt feelings and behaviours that are alien to you.
• Other peoples’ well meaning but sometimes thoughtless exhortations to enjoy yourself.
• The assumption, often well meaning,  that you must be having a good time, and that you ‘must be’ in the company of large numbers of close friends and loving family.
• The pressure to be happy, measured against a seemingly arbitrary scale that it is almost impossible to achieve.
• Comparison with others’ lives and experiences.
• Noise, flashing lights.
• Lack of money / being conspicuously the one with the least.
• You may find the presence of children triggering. This may be because of your own childhood experiences, or you are having difficulty having children of your own.

 Old behaviours and patterns re-emerging

• Pleasing others.
• Denying your own needs.
• Falling back into emotional blackmail.
• Feeling obliged to pretend or put on a false persona.
• A sense of obligation leading to resentment.
• Buying others’ love, with material gifts, food, etc.
• Bullying.
• Anger.
• Depression.
• Excessive use of alcohol, drugs, or food.
• Exacerbation of existing mental health issues.

Religion

• If you are religious, you may be appalled at the hijacking and/or commercialisation of a very significant time in the calendar.
• If you are not, you may feel that religion is being forced upon you.
• You may attend religious events only at this time of year, and may or may not feel like a hypocrite.

Alcohol and other intoxicants

• Intoxication makes everything seem bigger and louder. This can go both ways.
• Intoxication may lead to verbal and physical fights and abuse.
• It may also lead to no-going-back ‘truth-telling’. This may have a cathartic outcome, or create long rifts.
• It may encourage sexual behaviour beyond our normal boundaries, or non-consensual activity.
• Not consuming intoxicants may cause you to be singled out, whatever your reasons.
• (Paradoxically, intoxication can get us through difficult days and for some, may be the only thing that does.)

The internet

• Wanting to stay in contact with your online communities but without witnessing what might at another time be called ‘showing off’, ie the endless performative sharing of others’ bounty, whether involving holidays, gifts given and received, partners, children etc.

If you’re reading this, nodding, and shouting HELP, one thing’s for sure: you’re not alone. I suspect more people experience elements of the above than don’t. People seem to be very good at pressuring ourselves in to doing things we have never truly consented to.

My next post in the series will offer some strategies for making things go easier, faster, or quieter.

  • If you’d like to find out more about how I work, and what I specialise in, please go here.
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