The happiest season of all (and how to survive it)

Emma Leaning
Emma Leaning
Difficulties at Christmas affect more of us than you might think, which is why I asked five mental health professionals about the "happiest season of all" (and how to survive it).

Emma Leaning
Emma Leaning
The happiest season of all (and how to survive it)

Christmas. Time off work, gifts under the tree, and enough booze and food to feed the five thousand. What's not to love? Quite a lot. Mistletoe and mulled wine aside, Christmas can be difficult, especially for those living with mental health conditions.

But you don't need a formal diagnosis to find the festive season overpowering or underwhelming. Let's be honest, traditional images of Christmas are very optimistic. A cozy home, tastefully decorated and filled with cheery loved ones gathered around a stuffed bird cooked to perfection. Life is too messy to guarantee the Hallmark version of anything. Ongoing travel restrictions are a case in point. Shanghai has a huge international community, and didn't many of us expect to spend Christmas in our native home this year?

Not celebrating how we'd like is just one of many triggers over the holiday. There can be financial strains, social anxiety or the reality of spending Christmas alone. You might be struggling for the first time, or perhaps you've found Christmas difficult before and dread it now. Maybe you find some parts really enjoyable and others quite tricky. Whatever the situation, it's important to remember you're not alone. Difficulties at Christmas affect more of us than you might think, which is why I asked five mental health professionals about the "happiest season of all" (and how to survive it).

Blue Christmas

The happiest season of all (and how to survive it)
Courtesy of Laura Ruesjas-Lukasik

Laura Ruesjas-Lukasik, clinical psychologist, from Argentina

As if written in ancient scripture, Christmas is foreseen to be the happiest time of year, yet the season can be very challenging. People with depression tend to compare themselves to everyone else, filtering out the positives in their own life while exaggerating the good in others. They also prefer to be left alone and experience an overall sense of hopelessness. Christmas heightens the intensity of symptoms, especially when we're expected to participate in family reunions and social gatherings. It triggers rumination about what we're missing or haven't achieved, and creates cognitive dissonance, where our inner experience doesn't seem to mirror the happiness around us.

Surf the Christmas wave by taking part in celebrations mindfully. That means being present without judgment toward yourself or others. When we do the opposite of what our depressive mood tells us, we're gifted with small positive moments that add up to improve overall well-being. Aside from that, maintain any medication as prescribed by your physician, avoid alcohol, and keep a regular sleep schedule.

Christmas Without You

The happiest season of all (and how to survive it)
Courtesy of Carrie Jones

Carrie Jones, director of counseling at Community Center Shanghai, from the United States

"It's the most wonderful time of the year ... it's the hap-happiest season of all," ... right? Yes, in many ways, it really is. However, Christmas can also be very painful. Those grieving the death of a loved one frequently find the season to be the most challenging time of year. Emotions are high, memories abound, and traditions or rituals don't feel the same without the presence of a loved one who has died.

It's important to permit yourself to really grieve, even if that means not being as cheerful or active as others expect. Take time to remember your loved one, the memories you shared and the role they played in your life. Some people find it helpful to do something meaningful that honors or celebrates the life of their deceased – perhaps lighting a candle, hanging an ornament or making a donation to a worthy cause in their name. I hope you experience peace, comfort and joy this holiday, whatever your situation.

Great Expectations

The happiest season of all (and how to survive it)
Courtesy of George Hu

George Hu, department chair of mental health at Shanghai United Family Pudong Hospital and president of Shanghai International Mental Health Association, from the United States

The streets are lined with twinkling lights and colorful trees, while the smell of gingerbread fills the air. Everything is picture-perfect, and yet for you, something's not quite right. Dissatisfaction: it's a subtle but insidious experience. We can become dissatisfied when we look at what others have or are doing. And while not limited to the holidays, dissatisfaction gets exacerbated in the season of cheer and excess. The sensation creeps up quietly and often convinces us of things that aren't true. "I'm not doing enough" and "I'm not worthy" are just two of its favorite tracks. It also feeds other negative emotions like anxiety.

Offset dissatisfaction by adjusting perspectives to highlight or increase counterbalancing emotions like gratitude. You could start a gratitude journal (or a simple bullet-point list), which comprises things you're thankful for. A few tips from an old pro: Try to be as specific as possible, write two things every day that you're appreciative of and don't repeat them. Reflecting this way can help re-orient mindsets to replace our dissatisfaction with gratitude.

'The Holiday'

The happiest season of all (and how to survive it)
Courtesy of Ans Hooft

Ans Hooft, stress counselor and life coach, from the Netherlands

It's Christmas, and that can mean only one thing: You're busy. There are parties and brunches to attend (looking better than ever), an extensive meal to cook and carefully selected presents to buy. We can't travel, so everything here has to be perfect. That's what everyone else is managing. Right? But midst the planning and preparation, Christmas is starting to feel less like a holiday. You worry about things not being flawless and lie awake re-thinking side dishes. If honest, you're not really enjoying Christmas at all. It's super stressful.

Ask yourself: What's Christmas really about? What's genuinely important? You'll probably find answers aren't about having the best outfit or buying the most impressive gift. So why not tone things down and focus on what makes you happy? Maybe that's quality time with loved ones without social media. Or do nothing. Happiness can be found on a couch reading a book. Drop whatever pressure around Christmas you can. It's your time: spend it any way you want.

Lonely This Christmas

The happiest season of all (and how to survive it)
Courtesy of Jamie Hoel

Jamie Hoel, counseling support manager at Lifeline, from the United States

Christmas isn't typically associated with loneliness, but it can be the loneliest time of all, and ongoing travel restrictions will leave some feeling it more than ever this year. It's important to remember that while you feel alone, you are not. Many of us can relate, particularly in our current situation. Your sense of isolation is a reaction to difficult circumstances, and other people will experience similar emotions.

Scrolling social media or watching festive movies can intensify loneliness because we feel pressured to live up to greeting card versions of Christmas. That's impossible for most of us, so check in with yourself and take a break if it isn't proving helpful. It's good to be proactive with self-care throughout the season, so give yourself things to look forward to. Make plans with friends, schedule a class, book a staycation or massage, and make time for something you've put off. Most importantly, don't be afraid to ask for help. If you're overwhelmed, support is available, so reach out to Lifeline any day (10am-10pm).

The happiest season of all (and how to survive it)

Watch our community reading of "The Night Before Christmas," read by people living with mental health issues or supporting those that do.

Directed by Emma Leaning. Edited by Zhong Youyang.

Special Reports