Christmas is upon us once again, that most wonderful time of the year when merriness seems all but mandatory. Yet in spite of- or perhaps because of- the widespread insistence that Christmas is a happy time, there's an awful lot of misery about. In a 2015 Samaritans survey of 1600 adults, 1 in 6 respondents said that Christmas was the loneliest time of the year, and 23.6% believed that problems felt worse over the festive period.
One of the hardest things about feeling low can be the sneaking, guilty sense that you ought to be happier than you are. This feeling is surely never more pervasive than during the annual joy offensive that is Christmas. Every year around the beginning of December, we’re bombarded with schmaltzy songs, corny TV specials and heart-warming supermarket adverts, all screaming the message that Christmas is about happiness, love and togetherness. That’s a hard message to bear for people who are suffering from depression or anxiety, for those spending Christmas alone, or feeling isolated and unwanted.
In a way, Christmas is just an accentuation of an unhealthy attitude towards negative emotions that plagues society all year round. Entire industries- advertising, plastic surgery, self-help literature- are built on the premise that happiness is an attainable (read: purchasable) goal, and unhappiness an obstacle that is easy to avoid, if you only have the right tools. If you follow my advice/ buy this product/ adopt this diet, the argument goes, you will finally be happy, and your troubles will just melt away.
This mentality is toxic and harmful, and not just at Christmas. The idea that unhappiness can be entirely avoided through the right kind of attitude or exercise regime only serves to make us feel like failures when, time and again, those feelings of anxiety and sadness come creeping back. Misery is compounded by guilt, and the treacherous thought that we are responsible for our own low moods.
The best advice I was ever given about taking care of my mental health was that it's OK to feel crappy: sometimes people just do. There are things you can try to make yourself feel less crappy, less often, but they don't work for everyone, or all of the time. Like most things that are really true, this advice didn’t come with an easy-to-implement, commercially viable solution. It didn’t change my life overnight. But it helped. Like many people, I have long had a tendency to punish myself for feeling low, getting into a meta-spiral of beating myself up for sadness and anxiety. Now I do that less, and I feel like that’s an improvement.
It’s this idea of trying to accept bad feelings rather than fabricate good ones that underpins the Samaritans’ #RealChristmas campaign. It counters the message of all those songs, adverts and TV specials by pointing out that in reality, Christmas is rarely the perfectly joyful affair they depict.
So I won’t be ending this post by wishing you all a merry Christmas. What I will wish for is a festive season in which we can all let ourselves off the hook, and have whatever Christmas we feel like having. Be kind to yourself, if you can. Be kind to others: even if you’re feeling merry, remember that they may not be. And who knows, maybe a crappy Christmas will be followed by an OK boxing day, even a pretty good New Year.
If you are feeling crappy this Christmas, you don’t have to bear it by yourself. The Samaritans is open throughout the festive period, including on Christmas day. Their free phone number is 116 123, and their email is email@example.com. You can find your local branch using the branch finder on their website: http://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help-you/contact-us. Samaritans is for everyone, whether or not you are feeling suicidal.