The most wonderful time of the year, filled with love and joy, gift-giving and quality time spent with family and friends, is actually a not-so-wonderful time for many of us. While Christmas is celebrated and loved by many, the season can also bring pressure, stress and emotional exhaustion.
Christmas can be a difficult time for those of us who face triggers, loneliness, childhood trauma, lost loved ones, and difficult circumstances. While we all face triggers, some of us find those around this season can be particularly challenging to handle.
What are triggers?
When we say, or feel, ‘triggered’, it means something’s touched a nerve or struck a chord with us. You might have seen trigger warnings in articles or videos, or heard someone say they’ve been triggered. Usually, triggers cause us to remember a traumatic experience we’ve had and memories and feelings can come flooding back - bringing challenges with it.
Why do we get triggered around the festive season?
A trigger impacts our emotional state, but we might already be in a more vulnerable place than usual. Around this time, there’s more pressure to have fun and be jolly, to satisfy everyone’s wants and needs, have a great Christmas, get some rest, do the shopping, plan a feast, see your family, feed the pets, keep the house clean, be eco-friendly and not spend too much money - easy right! We put immense pressure on ourselves to be brilliant and have a perfect Christmas because it should be the most wonderful time of the year! But this pressure actually leaves us feeling more emotionally vulnerable than usual.
Unfortunately, not all of us hold fond memories of this time of year, which can lead to us finding more triggers around this time. Perhaps you do have fond memories of grandparents over Christmas who are no longer with us. Or maybe your childhood Christmases weren’t so jolly, and as adults we’re reminded every time it swings around each year. For others, coping with mental health issues around Christmas, when we’re out of our usual routines or don’t have support systems in place, can be challenging. Or perhaps it reminds you of arguments, tears and trauma.
Then there are expectations that we feel we must meet even though they don’t always align with our values. For many of us, it’s a time for family and while that can be blissful and adoring, it can also be highly irritating. Going back to our childhood homes and going through the traditions we once loved - or absolutely didn’t but were children and couldn’t say otherwise, can be extremely difficult. As adults, many of us have learnt ways to manage ourselves (emotionally, physically, mentally). Perhaps you have a routine that keeps you calm that just isn’t possible when visiting others or you have different rules in your own home that are outright ignored by the (well-intentioned) parents-in-law.
So, how can we protect our wellbeing over the festive period?
1. Set boundaries to protect your health
Our triggers are very personal to us, and when we don’t want to face them or have them forced upon us, boundaries allow us to protect our wellbeing. There might be any number of reasons why we don’t want to see, hear or do something this year - and it might be the first year we found the courage to express this. Create your boundaries and have the courage to stick to them - try to communicate them so those around you understand, or be firm with your needs if you’d rather not explain. It can be daunting, but it’s your Christmas too.
"Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They're compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment." Brené Brown
2. Maintain your routine
When routine flies out the window we can feel out of control and more vulnerable. Try keeping your usual routine as much as possible, even if you have time off work or lots of travelling to do, keep your comforts close. It might be sticking to a wake-up time each morning, taking the dog for a walk, or having your usual breakfast while others indulge. It might even be getting your daily movement in - regardless of the weather because you know a run will help ground you whether it’s starting to snow or not (just be careful on slippery grounds!). Maybe you make time to journal each day, keep at it even if it means pretending to have an extra-long poop locked in the bathroom.
3. Do what works for you
If it doesn’t align with you, your needs or your wellbeing, don’t feel obliged to join in. There might be behaviours that you find triggering or actions of others that are difficult to be around. Although it’s a time of year for gatherings, parties, and surrounding ourselves with people - it might be too much for some of us. Don’t feel pressure to perform if it’s not for you. And if you’re not sure, ask yourself “do I want to remember this?” to help you decide.
4. Stay off social media
We can often get lost in watching, seeing, reading about what everyone else is up to, we can be caught in comparisons between what we have and what they have. While it’s nice to see how others are celebrating, what they get up to, it can also be quite difficult, especially if you’re truly enjoying yourself. Avoid spending too much time on social media platforms for the day, check in with people you care about, but avoid mindless scrolling that can lead us to feel rubbish about ourselves.
5. Make some time for you
While the festivities are playing out, remember to make time for yourself. To rest and recuperate. To relax and switch off for a moment. To have a nourishing meal and move your body. To run a hot bath and eat the advent calendar chocs all at once (they're only small, right?). Constant plans, parties and shenanigans can see our social batteries dwindle, and leave us feeling emotionally and physically drained. Take time to look after yourself.
Not-so-very-merry-Christmas: The season can be a huge challenge and lots of pressure to handle, we know it can be hugely difficult for many. Try to accept that low points will happen and when they do, look after yourself. When there is a moment of merriness, embrace it if you feel up to it.