The stress of the holiday season is profound and varied across our population. While many wish joy to the world, others struggle to simply get through winter with their mental health intact.
One in five Canadians are affected directly or indirectly by mental health issues meaning odds are someone you know faces some degree of stress over the holidays.
“This time of year is often really, really hard for people,” says Jocelyn de Montmorency, program manager at the Canadian Mental Health Association BC – Victoria office.
Loss can become more keen at Christmas.
“Acknowledging that with somebody is really important. Acknowledge that the season won’t be the same,” de Montmorency says. “People often want to talk about it. Ask them what their loved one liked about Christmas or a favourite cause. Incorporate that into newer traditions.”
Amid its Joy Sunday and Love Sunday, Oak Bay United Church offers When Christmas is Tough: a service of Comfort.
“Sometimes people think it’s for people who are specifically grieving someone they love, and need time and space to feel feelings … to know they’re not alone, to feel and hear words of comfort and encouragement. Which is really the truest message of Christmas – that we’re not alone in the darkest parts of our lives,” says Rev. Michelle Slater.
It’s true the service is for those folks. But it’s also for anyone affected by the other stresses of the season.
“Everyone finds Christmas tough at some times. No one is solely filled with peace, serenity, joy, magic and mystery,” Slater says. “If we’re honest, most of us will experience some level of stress, sadness, loneliness or feeling overwhelmed.”
The Dec. 18 service (7 p.m.) features a balance of carols and silence as well as an opportunity for remembering loved ones. It’s followed by a short social afterward, for those who want to talk as de Montmorency suggests.
The time of year is emotional in other ways as well. Family dynamics, lack of sleep, over stimulation can set the stage for disaster.
“The biggest thing is keeping it simple. Not planning and over planning,” de Monmorency says.
There are some strategies individuals, and those around them, can use to make the holiday easier. Invest time now, to save burnout later.
“Stop and think about what you want in the way of Christmas,” de Montmorency says. “For me personally, I enjoy the lights at Christmas time and getting together with family. It’s not about the gifts.”
Everyone has a different holiday routine, Christmas or otherwise, and taking a few minutes to think about “what does the holiday season mean for me?” can save heartache and headache later. Planning ahead can also include staying within a budget, not falling victim to competitive gift-buying and learning stress-busting skills.
“Let’s be realistic about Christmas,” de Montmorency says. “Pick what you want to do, pick a few things and decide on what your limits are and really try to stick to them.”
The season can also spur sad memories, sparking depression and anxiety. Expectations to spend time with, sometimes fractured, families and to be in good cheer can also be stressful. Helping and holidays seem to go hand in hand, and one way is helping others and trying to make the holidays comfortable for all.
“If you have a neighbour or somebody that you can invite so you’re not spending Christmas day alone,” de Montmorency says. “Then for people that do have family or have a big dinner, invite somebody that you think might be alone.”
To battle the blues, look for something to do.
“There are lots of free holiday activities within our communities,” she say. For example in Oak Bay the Monterey Recreation Centre offers thousands of members and activities at low cost.
Family members, friends and neighbours can all help those having a hard time with the season in simple ways, either by helping them with some of the planning tips or just spending time with them.
“If you notice and think somebody is struggling, ask them right out, ask how you can help them,” de Montmorency says. “Listen to what they want. Don’t give them unwanted advice.”
If you’re struggling, something physical can help.
“I love to walk. Even at this time of year, it’s pushing yourself to get out and get that little bit of exercise,” de Montmorency says. “Grab an umbrella get a bit of fresh air, nine times out of 10 you’ll feel better.”
That said, everybody has different things that perk them up, whether it’s music or a hobby, develop a strategy to manage mood.
Finally, give thanks – take stock of what you do have.