How to Cope With Sadness at Christmas

Christmas is mostly portrayed as being a happy time with presents, food and family. But what if, rather than feeling joyful, you are grieving, feeling sad, worried or isolated at Christmas?

It can be a really difficult and challenging time, and you might wonder if others can appreciate what you are going through. There will be many individuals with different struggles around Christmas, and so it is good to think about some ways to manage over this time.

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Loss and grief can be a major issue at Christmas. You might have lost a loved one or pet, or you may have experienced a non-death-related loss, such as divorce, loss of your job or health. Grief is the response to loss, and affects every aspect of yourself and your life, whether physical, emotional, behavioural, cognitive (such as memory and concentration), social or spiritual.

Here are some ideas for managing loss and grief at Christmas:

  • Allow grief time each day (say 15 to 20 minutes) in which to talk or journal the loss, or to have a cry.
  • Attend to self-care, including relaxation, walking in nature or pampering.
  • Use spiritual support if meaningful to you.
  • Explore and express your emotions, maybe through talking, writing a journal, or doing something creative or physical (running, gardening).
  • Practice self-compassion, which means being kind to yourself, as you would be to others. Be patient with yourself and quit any self-criticism.

Say Hello Again

Instead of simply ‘moving on’ from grief and deceased loved ones, a newer approach from Narrative Therapy is to ‘say hello again’ to the person you are grieving. This involves incorporating what has been lost into the present. By ‘saying hello again’ to the loved one, you can have an ongoing connection with that person, whilst still learning to live a life without them physically present.

This can be especially helpful at Christmas;

“If you were seeing Christmas through (their) eyes now, what would they be enjoying or wanting to see happen? What would (they) have said or done at Christmas? What traditions did they love, and how can you keep them going?”

The Memory Box

Another useful technique for grief is the ‘memory box’ – any box or container can be used, and it can be decorated with various materials. Into the box you can place various items which trigger positive memories of the person who has died. These may include photographs, special cards, or small belongings. You can bring out the box whenever they want to connect with the loved one, as may be the case at Christmas. This can be a lovely activity for children to participate in.

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Our emotions are not always set at ‘happy’, and life events can trigger sadness or depression. The symptoms of depression can include emotional symptoms (depression, anxiety, guilt, irritability, anger, inability to experience pleasure); behavioural symptoms (agitation, crying); attitudes towards self and the world – self-criticism, low self-belief, feelings of hopelessness, pessimism); cognitive symptoms (impaired thinking or concentration); or bodily symptoms (loss of appetite, sleep disturbance, low energy or libido.

Here are some strategies for dealing with sadness, depression or worry at this time of year:

  • Do you value the spirit of giving or caring at Christmas? Get in touch with your values (what is important to you) and put them into practice.
  • Connect with people for support and kindness.
  • Be mindful or in the moment – sadness often relates to thinking about the past, so pay attention in the now, to what is around you, to children’s faces and laughing, to the sunshine, and you will feel calmer and enjoy the moment more.
  • Practise self-care, that is, make sure you get enough sleep, eat well and do some       exercise, even if just a few minutes a day.
  • Learn to be assertive and to say ‘no’. This can be very handy around Christmas.
  • Remember the value of activity and humour – have a smile when able to, and get involved in something (a jigsaw, colouring-in book, cooking, playing with kids).
  • Do more relaxing activities such as meditation, exercise or hobbies.
  • Practise kindness to others and especially yourself.

A common cause of depressed mood and anxiety is perfectionism, and Christmas can bring this out! Perfectionism refers to wanting to do things extremely well, and it can result in the person putting pressure on themselves to meet high standards. It can lead to self-critical thinking, and perfectionists may define their self-worth by how well they perform. At this time of year, go easy on yourself and set some limits on what you are aiming to achieve. Can you delegate any tasks or drop some? What is the worst that can happen? The answer is not terribly much! Can you find some time to relax and be in the moment, so that you get some enjoyment from Christmas too?

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Isolation can contribute to people feeling sad, disappointed, irritable, lonely, stressed, anxious or angry at Christmas. It can be a ‘triggering’ time for many, for example;

  • If the person has no family or is estranged from their family, they are reminded of this when they see families together around them or in the media, and they can experience grief.
  • If the person is divorced, Christmas can be a reminder of events around the divorce and the resulting losses.
  • If there have been other traumas around Christmas in the past (for example, having a motor vehicle accident), emotions can also be triggered.

If you are aware of someone who might be lonely, you can help in different ways, including having a chat with them and acknowledging their feelings and that Christmas is not always a happy time; sending them a card or call them; dropping in some food or a gift or inviting them in for a cup of tea, breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea or dinner.

Here are 10 tips to help relieve your own loneliness at Christmas:

  1. Don’t compare yourself to others on the day as everyone’s situation is different.
  2. Be kind to yourself, for example, sleep in, have a special breakfast, or listen to your favourite music.
  3. Remember that you deserve some gifts too! Give yourself some gifts on the day, no matter how small.
  4. Go out and have some contact with people (charity lunches, visit the local shops or park).
  5. Spoil your pets too on the day and enjoy their company.
  6. Set yourself a task for the day, such as a craft activity, cleaning out a cupboard, go for a walk on the beach or at a national park.
  7. Listen to the radio or watch television; there are often special shows on the day, and talk back radio is good company – perhaps call in for the first time!
  8. Ring a friend or relative (or skype) and have a chat, call a radio station, or if you are struggling, call Lifeline 1
  9. Watch a funny movie and have a laugh, or surf the internet.
  10. Be kind to others, such as volunteering at a local charity and maybe serving Christmas lunch to homeless people.

Whether you are happy, sad, stressed or lonely at Christmas, aim for peace within yourself by putting some of these ideas in to practice. Be compassionate towards yourself and others, and all the best in 2016.

Dr Cate Howell OAM

Avatar of Cate Howell

Dr Cate Howell CSM, OAM is a GP and therapist, researcher, lecturer and author. She has over 30 years of training and experience in the health area, with a special interest in mental health and assisting individuals experiencing life stresses or crises. Cate holds a Bachelor in Applied Science (Occupational Therapy), a Bachelor of Medicine, a Bachelor of Surgery, a Masters in Health Service Management and a Doctor of Philosophy (Medicine). She also has a Diploma in Clinical Hypnosis and has trained in Couple Therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Interpersonal Therapy. She has travelled internationally to present research findings on depression and has been published in a number of academic journals. The author of three books, in 2012 Cate was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for services to medicine, particularly mental health, and professional organisations.

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