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The most wonderful time of the year? How romanticising Christmas can damage your mental health

Written by Anna Bartter

Love is all around us, especially at this time of year. But does the romantic notion of Christmas affect us negatively?

I love Christmas. It really is the most wonderful time of the year: Michael Bublé on Spotify (don’t judge), candlelight, mulled wine, soppy Christmas movies and chocolates scattered on all available surfaces. There’s something so romantic about all the candlelight in deepest, darkest winter and the fact that everyone is in their PJs on the sofa. Plus, you know, no work.

But does this rose-tinted approach to the festive season just serve to make us feel bad? Lots of us struggle with poor mental health during the Christmas period, and the idea that everyone else is having a picture-perfect time can compound this. Is our culture of romanticising Christmas actually damaging us?

It’s not just about the movies

Whether it’s The Holiday or you’re more of a Die Hard fan (don’t even try to tell me it’s not a Christmas film), everywhere you look at this time of year there are people falling in love, immaculately decorated houses, perfect tablescapes and everyone looking amazing. Even films that attempt to portray a more normalised approach (Bad Mothers, I’m looking at you) eventually succumb to the tried-and-tested winning formula of happily-ever-after in the end.

It’s not rocket science to notice that this can make some of us feel less than our best. If I looked even half as good as Cameron Diaz with a hangover, life would be pretty different, and I know I’m not alone. According to the mental health charity Mind, Christmas is “a time of year that often puts extra pressure on us and can affect our mental health in lots of different ways”, while a YouGov survey reveals that a quarter of people say Christmas makes their mental health worse. 

So, with this in mind, let’s break down the romanticised expectations in turn. 

It’s not all happy families 

Despite what the movies would have us believe, most people don’t have the perfect nuclear family setup. Families are messy and complicated at the best of times, and enforced togetherness combined with alcohol and high expectations can make tempers flare.

Despite Christmas being touted as a “family time”, it can bring out the worst in us, with pre-existing issues brought to the surface. According to psychotherapist Roxy Rhodes, the key here is managing expectations. “Any time we are expecting a day to be picture-perfect, we’re setting ourselves up to fail and we can feel as though we’re losing control,” she explains. “What we want to happen versus how life turns out are often two very different things. As soon as we notice we’re trying to predict how things will go, whether positive or negative, that’s when we need to check ourselves and learn to work from the present moment.”

If you’re hosting Christmas, the pressure can feel even worse, particularly if you have a family member who’s prone to criticism. Psychiatrist and founder of Brain Based Connection Dr Gauri Seth explains: “A parent or sibling may have unrelentingly high standards of how things ‘should be’, and with that we can feel moral judgement. If things fall short of the expected standards, we can feel we’ve done something wrong or have been lazy or thoughtless. With this desperation to avoid feeling like a failure, it’s easy to see how some people can dread Christmas.”

I go into full-on nesting mode on 1 December, and I can’t think of much apart from how to deck my halls, but I genuinely love decorating the tree and have no qualms about allowing the children to help – for me, it’s not about Insta-worthy perfection. 

Not everyone is in a relationship 

There’s definitely something about being coupled up at Christmas. With cuffing season in full swing, it can sometimes feel like you’re the only singleton in town. Throw romantic songs and alcohol into the mix, and it’s a recipe for feeling pretty rubbish about yourself. But the reality is very different. Many people will be single at Christmas or even spending it alone. And there’s a strong argument for this being the best time of year to be single – you can either embrace a onesie-wearing chocolate-fuelled sofa-fest or enjoy a cheeky Christmas snog on a night out without feeling guilty.

Money and work 

The country has to keep functioning, and if we’ve learned nothing else from the Covid pandemic, it’s that key workers have to push on through. The ongoing cost of living crisis is adding to the pressure this Christmas, with a Mind survey revealing that 41% of respondents get into debt at this time of year, and overspending is more common in people with existing mental health issues.

It can be hard to ignore the sparkle and appeal of beautifully wrapped, expensive gifts, but with a focus on more ethical shopping practices, this year is a great time to try a different approach. Gifts really don’t have to be expensive or new to be meaningful. You could even try making your gifts; homemade chutneys, biscuits or truffles are simple and effective. 

How to cope if you’re struggling 

Whatever your reasons for finding the festive season hard, it’s important to have some coping mechanisms in place well in advance. If you’re really struggling to cope, remember to reach out to someone you trust or contact a professional.

Personally, I know I need to be realistic with my festive goals, and not get too carried away with all the excitement. Keeping everything on a more even keel emotionally also helps to avoid that dreaded post-Christmas slump, but that’s not going to stop me from snuggling up and enjoying a Hallmark movie from time to time. 

You can find additional support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website or visit the NHS’s list of mental health helplines and organisations and the NHS Every Mind Matters resource hub.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected].

Images: Getty

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