Festive Season Depression

9 Little Ways To Look After Your Mental Wellbeing This Christmas (or to lookout for it in others)

Christmas might be ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ for many, filled with festivities, food, parties and time with loved ones. But for some people, the constant reminder that you should be happy can make you feel even worse. That expectation can feel like a huge burden following you around. It’s often not the ‘Grinch’ who stole Christmas but rather family trauma, social anxiety and lost loved ones. 

For some, such as my carol-loving, gammon-munching, tinsel-crazy sisters, this might come as a surprise. But Christmas can be challenging for many different reasons, make existing problems worse and add new ones. And with Covid around, this upcoming Christmas might be even more challenging than before. If there are people in your life who do struggle with the mental challenge of Christmas, here are some tips to help you support them:


Don’t make assumptions about why Christmas is difficult for them.

– Don’t ask intrusive questions about their past or experiences. You might never know why they find it difficult. It’s often a deeply personal reason.

– Don’t try to cheer them up. Whatever your intentions, these aren’t usually helpful things to hear. For example, try to avoid saying things like “but Christmas is supposed to be a happy time” or “you could enjoy yourself if you tried.”

– Don’t take it personally if they don’t join in. It may feel disappointing, but it doesn’t mean they don’t care about you.


Understand that Christmas means something different to other people, and may bring up very different feelings. You might feel you’re sharing a celebration, but that might not be what’s happening for them.

– Let them know you understand Christmas can be difficult, and you’re there for them.

– Tell them it’s not unusual. They might not know it’s common to find things hard at this time of year.

– Ask if there are things you can start, stop or continue doing. You could suggest they take time to think and come back to you.

– Remember they aren’t trying to spoil Christmas. No one chooses to find things hard.

For those who do struggle with the Christmas period, here are nine steps to help you handle it a little better.

1. Plan ahead

As the end of the year fast approaches, it’s OK to feel overwhelmed or a little burnt out. So be kind to yourself when you’re planning what you will do. Christmas can be a difficult day, but it’s what you make it. You’re not being selfish by saying “no” to some things or asking for some help. 

Think about what might be difficult for you, and if there’s anything that might help you cope. It might be useful to write it down. For example:

  • If you sometimes experience flashbacks, panic attacks or dissociation, make a note of what helps during these moments, and keep it with you.
  • If you’re going to be somewhere unfamiliar for Christmas, think about what you need to help you cope. Are there things you can bring to make you feel more comfortable? Or is there somewhere you can go to take a break?
  • Certain places may feel very uncomfortable for you, for example if they bring back difficult memories. Could you plan to spend less time in difficult places, or not go at all? 
  • Try to plan something nice to do after Christmas. Having something to look forward to next year could make a real difference.

2. Pace yourself 

The holiday season is the perfect opportunity to take some time out of your day-to-day life, and gain some perspective to reflect on the year. Whether spending time away from home or having a stay-cation, re-energise by giving yourself a change of scene or pace, it’s good for you! Don’t be afraid to take time out to go for a walk, listen to music or have a nap if you need it. 

3. Change your expectations

Being invited to social events and the pressure of living up to expectations can increase stress for people with a mental health condition. Some people also might start putting too much pressure on themselves about what they should buy or do for others. Others might dread catching up with family because it may end in conflict.

You have a choice in how you spend your holiday season. It may be that you simply need to change your expectations for the day; change Christmas to meet your needs and spend time with people who are supportive. It’s OK to say no to things or ignore it completely – or just the bits that you don’t enjoy. It doesn’t have to include a massive to-do list and be crammed with things you do out of obligation or tradition.

4. Talk About Your Feelings

It’s hard to admit that at such an exciting time of year, you don’t actually feel that great. But talking about your feelings can improve your mood and make it easier to deal with the tough times. It’s part of taking charge or ‘self-managing’ your mental wellbeing and doing what you can to stay healthy. It’s important to create space for these conversations and also worth identifying who you can speak to if you are concerned about your wellbeing. It’s often the case that a problem shared is a problem halved, and family members or friends may be able to shield you from the expectations of the season.

5. Give back

Volunteering is a great way to boost self-esteem and support people who may be going through a difficult time – or if you don’t want to be on your own. You could serve a meal at a homeless centre, take gifts to a children’s hospital, visit people at a nursing home or if you’re a Christian, attend a church service. 

There are also other ways to give back; donate to a charity, collect old books or clothes and give them to a second-hand shop or start a conversation with a stranger or neighbour – it could be just the thing you both need to get in the holiday spirit.

6. Reflect and set goals

You won’t be blamed for wanting to forget 2020 altogether. But the end of the year is always a good time to look back on your journey and celebrate your achievements – regardless how small they may seem. 

As you plan for the year ahead, try to come up with positive and achievable goals that contribute to making you feel positive, healthy and fulfilled – and give you a great sense of achievement. It’s easy to make New Year’s resolutions – but sticking to them is the difficult part. A good place to start is to jot down all the positive things you experienced and activities that made you feel good over the year. Focus on the things that build your confidence and bring you one step closer towards better mental health. 

7. Alcohol in moderation

While a bit of alcohol can make you feel relaxed, don’t forget that drinking too much can leave you feeling irritable and low. Drinking within the recommended guidelines means you’ll get to enjoy a Christmas tipple, whilst reducing the negative effects on your mood. Alcohol can also play a big part in arguments and disagreements, so it’s often sensible to drink in moderation.

8. Avoid comparisons

If you do decide to use social media over the festive season, avoid comparing your experience to those of your friends. Remember that most people only share the best bits of their lives online and you don’t know what’s going on behind the smiling selfies and beach pics.

9. Get support

Sometimes it’s difficult to talk about what’s going on but it could be as simple as sending a text, a message on social media, inviting someone over for a cup of tea or making a phone call. And if you’re supporting someone who has anxiety or depression these holidays it’s important to look after yourself too. 

Occasions like Christmas can also bring up feelings of sadness and grief for people who have lost someone special. If you feel you can, talk about your loved one, share memories – and tears. You may also like to spend some time alone so you can think about your loved one. It’s also OK to enjoy yourself, don’t feel guilty, it doesn’t mean you don’t miss them.

I read a comment online that said; “I like to light a candle for loved ones who cannot be with us for Christmas for one reason or another. The glow of the candles is comforting to me and helps provide a sense of peace and happiness.” 

If things are getting too much for you in the next couple of months ask for help. Here are some numbers;

  • The South African Depression and Anxiety Group: 0800 456 789
  • SA Depression and Anxiety Group suicide line: 080 056 7567 / 011 234 4837
  • Cipla SADAG Mental Health Line: 0800 4567 789 / 076 88 22 775 (WhatsApp) / 0800 567 567 (suicide line)
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