Written at the request of the OHSW team of the Nova Scotia Health Authority for inclusion in their seasonal publication. I’m fortunate to be a member of an organization that recognizes mental health as an intrinsic part of overall wellness.
On an office door not far from mine, there’s a whiteboard counting down the number of days until Christmas. I’m sure this excited person simply wants to share their good cheer, but instead of bringing me joy, this perky daily update triggers a flutter of anxiety butterflies in my stomach. This is partly due to the shrinking window of time left to fulfill my family’s wish lists, something I haven’t even begun, but those flapping butterflies have a deeper origin than just my hatred of shopping.
Honestly, if Christmas and I were in a relationship, our Facebook status would be “It’s complicated”. I love it, I really do, it’s just that almost everything about it also messes with my head. In this, I know I am not alone.
Although it’s most often portrayed as an idyllic time of year when loving families come together and share bountiful meals, this isn’t true for many people. Unfortunately, when everyone expects you to have a “Merry Christmas”, it can be very difficult to tell them otherwise. And, when negative aspects of the holidays are discussed, the focus is on tangible things, such as increased debt, the unhealthy diet, or the difficulty of winter travel.
Over the past few years, however, I’ve become more aware of how the season affects my “intangibles”. How my insecurities and issues become magnified by the intensity that surrounds the holiday. Dressing up for parties makes my body image worse, and meeting new people increases my social awkwardness. I feel more pressure for everything to be perfect, like it’s my responsibility to ensure everyone has a great time. Instead of feeling rested with the break from work and a week spent with my family, I get fatigued by the lack of me-time, and then feel guilty I’m not enjoying every moment of our “togetherness”. Christmas knocks me off-balance.
Nevertheless, I’m being honest when I say I love Christmas, because this magnification also affects my positive “intangibles”. At the party I was anxious to attend, I laugh with friends and find joy. When family gathers for a meal, I feel intensely blessed by the comfort and prosperity which we enjoy. And, after my husband and children are in bed and it’s dark but for the lights on the tree, the love in our home feels larger and more pure. So yes, my relationship with Christmas is definitely complicated.
At this time of year, moods and emotions, both positive and negative, intensify. You only need to look at a child to see it; anticipation and excitement may be at peak levels, but so is impatience and disappointment. This is happening all around us. Just as love and happiness are being amplified, so are grief and loneliness, and any strain in relationships. This is why, even though it’s easy to get lost in the holiday frenzy, it’s important to have compassion for yourself and those around you.
Unfortunately, knowing all this doesn’t do much to quell my anxiety triggered by the whiteboard down the hall. It does, however, reinforce that I’m not alone. So, even with an increasing number of butterflies fluttering in my stomach, I’m going to try to embrace that countdown. As for our relationship status on Facebook… maybe it’s time for me and Christmas to try being “in a civil union”.