Known as the ‘season to be jolly’, Christmas can also bring all sorts of stresses many people could do without. Whether from financial pressure or materialism overdose, family constraints or unrealistic social expectations, Christmas can be a challenging time for our mental health and even more so for people who struggle with anxiety or with other mental illnesses or disorders.
The pressure of socialising can be daunting for people who suffer from social anxiety and a reminder of how lonely they are for people who, due to circumstances beyond their control, have lost touch with family or simply do not have anyone to spend Christmas with. Each year many people spend Christmas alone due to family breakdown or personal circumstances such as bereavement of an elderly spouse, children living abroad, etc. Age concerns UK revealed that the elderly often feels lonelier at Christmas. The constant reminder that Christmas is about family, fun and laughter can be a pretty depressing thought for lonely people.
The time and energy that go into preparing for Christmas day and the strife to ‘making everything perfect’ can also be all consuming and a hindrance to the upkeep of routines that bring security for the anxious soul. It can also lead to disappointment and an endless lack of satisfaction.
The truth is, for many people, keeping Christmas simple is difficult as the pressure to keep up with the Jones’s is very real. It is no longer just a matter of making the kids happy with thoughtful presents. There is a genuine pressure to ensure their Christmas presents compare well with those of their friends, and that can be particularly difficult for less wealthy parents living in affluent areas. As parents we fear their self-esteem will be affected as a result of not getting them presents as good and as expensive as their friends, or perhaps they’ll feel less valued or less loved.
This Christmas will be my first Christmas without my Nan who passed recently. She loved Christmas and it may be fair to say that she experienced much less ‘hyped’ Christmases than most of us do today.
The reality is we can often feel broken even in happy times such as Christmas. Some people have lost loved ones around that time and Christmas can come as a reminder of that loss as the anniversary of their death.
As a Christian leader, I have always wanted to be authentic and opening up about my own mental and emotional challenges, has been a huge part in achieving this. Yet, I have often been made to feel ashamed of my anxiety. In Christian circles, the responses I’ve had include things like I should trust God more and that God will never give me more than I can handle. I have also been made to think that anxiety is something I should repent of and so as well as suffering from anxiety, I also started to feel guilty. I have had people almost suggesting that taking medication was a lack of faith.
Megan Devine, a grief expert, author and psychotherapist explains that trying to cheer people up, telling them to persevere and giving them advice do not work. Instead she says, it is more effective to acknowledge and join in someone’s pain.
“The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed… exactly as it is.” (Parker Palmer)
While churches should be places where people feel loved and free to grieve and be in pain, many people do not dare to open up to some of the things they go through. The stigma surrounding mental health and the traditional interpretation of mental health issues by the church leaders remains a huge obstacle for many to be honest about their inner struggles. Yet, talking honestly about our problems paves the way for others to do the same, and that in itself, is freeing. I recently wrote a book called Honesty Over Silence, to open up conversations around difficult topics such as trusting in God when life is painful, and dealing with anxiety and depression, we need to say its ok not be ok. From my experience people who suffer with anxiety and depression are not weak people they have been strong for too long, they need acceptance not to be made to feel guilty.
My hope is that this Christmas you will find comfort in knowing that you are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Patrick Regan OBE
Founder of Kintsugi Hope