Officially it’s only just turned Autumn but I know that so many of us are struggling with the idea that Winter is coming and all the associated mental health issues that start or are compounded by the season.
The nights are much shorter. The darkness seems more bleak. The weather is more wet and wild. And just when we think it’s all too much to bear; we realise that Christmas (which comes with its own set of pressures and issues) is just around the corner.
I always struggle with this time of year, whether professionals officially agree (or not) on whether Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a ‘real’ mental illness diagnosis, I think we can all agree that most of us find this time of year difficult. Our minds go into hibernation mode. We go to and leave work in the dark, the weather means we struggle to be active outside and all we want to do is comforting food to warm us up. But we don’t talk about the difficulties do we? We very rarely say that we struggle so much with Winter and Christmas but I do and I’m here to say why:
Bleak weather is never the most inspiring for socialising. You want to stay wrapped up and warm just like the Hygge book suggests which means that we unintentionally isolate ourselves more than usual. We turn down invitations because the weather looks shit or you feel down because you haven’t seen any daylight except through the office window so your brain thinks it’s 10pm and you just want to sleep. And when we do go out, we get wet. Our jeans stick to our legs. Our waterproof shoes turn out not to be so waterproof. Our umbrellas turn inside out with the wind. Unfortunately, that social isolation (particularly if you live alone) can highlight or bring on mental health struggles because we are not connecting with each other.
I feel like I could write a book for all the ways in which I don’t enjoy Christmas. I don’t like all the superficial crap surrounding it and as someone who massively suffers with their mental health, I struggle with it in so many ways:
I’m going to go ahead and take a random stab in the dark that most of us don’t own huge houses with a nice car for every inhabitant of that house and a large disposable income which means that even if we don’t have to watch every single penny, we do have to be careful with our spending so Christmas adds in an inordinate amount of financial pressure. How much should we spend on each present? How many presents do we even need to buy? How much should I contribute to the food for Christmas lunch? How much is my transport going to cost to get home for the holidays? Money is a high-pressure worry throughout the day for many of us but at the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ the pressure can really get to us.
– Friends and Family
I don’t know many people that could stand spending an entire day cooped up in one place with their family. Why? Because we don’t get to choose who we are related to and as adults, we might all just be assholes that don’t get along. The family you’ll comfortably spend the day with? Your friends because they are the family you have chosen. It doesn’t mean that you hate your related family members but families can hold very different people with varying opinions and beliefs and so it’s perfectly natural that you can’t get along all the time. Add in the stress of cooking, travel and different TV/game opinions etc and you’re just asking for trouble.
– Commercialisation of Christmas
This one is a big issue for me. I am someone who makes time (and buys gifts) for my loved ones throughout the year so for me, Christmas is the antithesis of the person I am i.e. being forced into buying gifts and showing people you love them simply because the calendar dictates it. We have stopped listening to each other in this world which means that we continually buy and receive shitty gifts so we go through the rigmarole of asking each other what we’d like only to ignore it because it’s not what we actually want to give which just adds to the frustration of the season. The paraphernalia seems to creep into the shops earlier and earlier each year begging us to part with our money on frivolities and plastic crap.
– End of year regrets
Winter and Christmas also remind us that the year is coming to an end and that can sometimes be a difficult reality to face. That despite optimistically announcing on January 1st that this year was going to be ‘your year’, it’s another 300 days down the line and you still haven’t achieved the things you set out to do or that life still sucks despite your best efforts. So then the feelings of failure begin to creep in again as you face another disappointing New Year’s Eve in which you announce superficial resolutions you know you don’t really want to keep. A lot of people get emotional on New Year’s Eve; it forces them to reflect on a difficult year or another year without someone to kiss at midnight but for me, I don’t just feel those regrets but am saddened at the thought of facing another year of being mentally ill.
– It’s not the happiest time of the year
Even the song suggests it’s the ‘most wonderful time of the year’ yet, for those of us who struggle with our mental health, it’s just another difficult day in our lives and when you tell us ‘it’s Christmas, you should be happy’ and we’re not? Then you add feelings of guilt and you allow us to feel like failures for not being able to find even the smallest gleam of hope and happiness at the ‘most wonderful time of the year’. I’ve written before that’s it’s ok to be sad when it’s sunny but to be sad when it’s the ‘happiest time of the year’, well that’s just certifiably crazy, right? Don’t get me wrong, I do love those cosy nights indoors at times and the occasional magical buzz of Christmas but on the whole, I feel like a failure because I can’t be happy when everyone else seems to be (even though they’re talking shit and just faking it themselves!).
Following on from the above point about having to be happy when you’re not, this time of year and Christmas in particular come with a lot of pressure due to societal and familial ‘rules’. The word ‘should’ gets banded around a lot at this time of year and we all know why I think it’s one of the worst words in the English language. We feel like we ‘should’ spend all our time socialising with each other when we’re already exhausted. We feel like we ‘should’ spend a certain amount of someone but not too much in comparison with other people. Then there’s the pressure of having to be careful of what we talk about at family time…steer clear of politics, prepare stock ‘how have you been’ answers. From finances to expecting happiness, the pressure is everywhere and it can be too much for so many of us.
I’m not saying that I hate Winter or Christmas altogether; just that I really struggle with it. I don’t mind it when I’m snuggled up nice and warm with a movie when it’s pouring with rain outside and I love those crisp mornings when it’s cold but sunny because it reminds me of my mornings on African campsites. My favourite part of Christmas is the roast dinner!
So what can we do to get through these dark, non-magical nights?
When I tell people how incredible my friends are, they often ask how I came to attract these types of people into my life and I always tell them that it’s about being honest. You can’t expect to receive honesty and trust if you’re not willing to give it yourself. I have incredibly supportive and encouraging friends in my life because I found the strength to leave the shit ones behind so when I’m having a bad day, I know I have people to help carry me when I feel too depressed to carry myself.
Invest in light
If SAD is something that you really struggle with, consider investing in something such as a salt lamp or light box to simulate natural sunlight to help regulate your sleeping patterns and get up in the morning a little easier. Even softer lighter with the use of a large lamp or fairy lights can help increase my feelings of calmness. If you can afford it, consider taking a Winter break to somewhere warm and sunny like I did with South Africa in January of this year.
Create a sanctuary
If you struggle with Winter/Christmas in general, try and find a room or place that you can become your sanctuary. If you rent a room, have a shed at the end of your garden or just love to go to the library, make it the best space you can. Surround yourself with all the things you love. My room is full of travel photos and prints, fairy lights (soft lighting is important to me) and books but I also love the library because it’s quiet and inspires me to work.
Say “no” more
If you can, be strong when vocalising what you need from others. If, for example, you have both parents and in-laws asking you for Christmas and the thought of visiting both is stressing you out, decide to visit one for Christmas but suggest you visit the other for New Year. If you are not strong with your ‘no’, sometimes people will try and guilt you into changing your mind. Don’t allow it! Look after yourself before you try and appease others.
When it comes to Christmas and worrying about finances, budget like there’s no tomorrow and be honest with others. If you can’t afford much, ask your family or friends ask if you can do a Secret Santa instead or limit your spend for everyone’s presents. Work out what you can afford and don’t get bullied into spending more simply because someone else is. There are great deals to be found if you make the effort to look and remember that personalised gifts (as in, something they told you they liked 6 months ago) trump shitty perfume gifts from the local department store!
How do you get yourself through Winter and Christmas?
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