HOW DOES CHRISTMAS AFFECT OUR MENTAL HEALTH?

HOW DOES CHRISTMAS AFFECT OUR MENTAL HEALTH?

By GRAHAM W PRICE.

As a psychologist in private practice, my experience of the impact of Christmas on mental health problems is most often negative. For those who are alone and lonely, the idea that others are enjoying themselves can exacerbate their sense of aloneness. For the depressed, a similar impact arises from any perceived difference between their lives and the supposedly happy majority.

The difference may well in reality be exaggerated. Many healthy enough people dread the festive season, the family gatherings, the inevitable conflicts. The media portrays Christmas as a happy time, exacerbating the view that everyone else is having fun. Perception though is everything and the mentally ill will generally suffer all the more from comparing their view of others with their own perceived deficiencies.

For the bereaved, Christmas can be a particularly lonely time and a reminder of happier times with the family they’ve lost.

This is by no means universal of course. The lonely and depressed who are included in family gatherings may well receive a boost. Those in care may gain comfort from communal celebrations.

Loneliness or a sense of deprivation and despair among the mentally ill can lead to self-harming behaviours intended to provide comfort. Drink, drugs or overeating can provide temporary comfort but usually make matters worse in the long-run, often leading to dependencies and further unhappiness.

A client who suffered from depression and regular panic attacks used ‘comfort eating’ to give her short-term relief. Her inevitable weight gain increased her sense of hopelessness and lack of control over her life. Through therapy, she learned better ways of dealing with uncomfortable feelings, enabling her to cease comfort eating and gain control over her weight and her life.

One group who dread Christmas are those with a Christmas phobia. Not a recognised phobia in the sense that it has no name, but common enough all the same.

There are named phobias for just about everything, except Christmas. Arachibutyrophobia … fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of the mouth; logizomechanophobia … fear of computers; politicophobia … fear of politicians; triskaidekaphobia … fear of the number 13; venustraphobia … fear of beautiful women. Perhaps we should name our seasonal phobia christmasophobia.

I recently read a sad story of a Japanese lady with so-called christmasophobia whose mother left her at the age of nine at Christmas, never to return. I had a client who so dreaded Christmas she found any excuse to travel abroad so she could avoid her family celebration. She had experienced a trauma on Christmas day at the age of nineteen. Fortunately modern phobia treatments are highly effective and she was quickly cured.

Another client dreaded Christmas as family gatherings to her meant being chastised about her weight problem and resulting depression. We resolved those issues and Christmas is no longer a fearful time for her.

Christmas is a time for giving and, fortunately, there are many willing to give their time to help the poor, the homeless and the mentally ill. Soup kitchens, food parcels delivered to homes in poor districts, free counselling and friendship visits are all ways that kind-hearted people can help to make Christmas a happier time for the poor and mentally ill. A dose of family tolerance also doesn’t go amiss.

Graham W Price

Chartered Psychologist, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance-Action Therapy (AAT) specialist, BPS, UKCP, HPC, BABCP accredited, personal and executive coach, personal development trainer, stress management consultant, author of ‘What Is, Is! The Power of Positive Acceptance, contact: grahamprice@abicord.com, 01372 815041, web: www.abicord.com

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