Ah, Christmas; the most wonderful (chaotic) time of the year. We blast carols the whole month of December as the days grow shorter, consumerism skyrockets, and the pressure of social gatherings thickens. On top of that, for students, finals loom over the horizon. Term papers, group projects, and that honors thesis are all due in less than a week. By the time Christmas rolls around, most of us haven’t even caught our breath in time to appreciate the holiday.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This time of year can also pain us for a variety of other reasons. Perhaps we just lost someone dear to us, or we struggle with a mental illness. Some of us may be international students separated from our families for the holidays, or we might be dealing with a tough financial situation. Whatever the case may be, although we’re dreaming of white Christmas, we may be experiencing a blue one.
So, what do we do?
Maybe we should practice some self care; take a small break from all the commotion, a quick pause from the endless rush of life. But this time around, a cup of tea and a hot bath don’t seem like they’re going to cut it.
Kathryn Redd, an associate director at the University of Texas at Austin’s Counseling and Mental Health Center (CMHC), has a different perspective on self care. She debunks the generalization of self care as a cure-all and offers an alternate perspective.
“There’s times when going to the gym and eating enough fruits and vegetables is not going to help if I get the flu; it’s not going to help if I break a bone,” Redd said. “I think the same is true for mental health. Putting in place a practice to keep ourselves mentally well is fantastic. And then there are times when that’s not enough or it’s not the right thing in that moment. So like taking a bath is not going to cure depression.”
If self care is just a supplementary practice, then what should we do if our situation becomes more severe? Redd suggests visiting a therapist or a psychiatrist, but the solution isn’t the same for everyone. Sometimes, it’s enough to simply be mindful of what changes we may need to make in our lives.
“Not everyone needs to see a therapist… it’s not the cure for everything,” Redd said. “Reflect on yourself and your life experience and recognize when you need to switch routes.”
Maybe we need to have an honest conversation with ourselves before we gear up for the holidays. The pressure to plaster on a smile can make it difficult to face the truth of our situation; we want to put on a happy face for the benefit of those around us. The expectation that Christmas has to be a happy time, however, is extremely toxic.
“The holidays can be really hard for people because I think there’s this pressure to be happy and jolly and jovial but that’s not always the reality,” Redd said.
It’s important to accept other emotions that may arise during the holidays, whether they be grief, sadness, frustration, anger, etc. By giving ourselves permission to feel these emotions, rather than suppressing them, we have the opportunity to find closure, experience catharsis, or simply gain self acceptance. After all, there’s nothing wrong with feeling these emotions.
“It’s not the emotions that are bad, in themselves they are neutral, it’s what we do with those emotions,” Redd explains.
So what if we channel these emotions in a more constructive way?
“I tend to think one of the things that embodies the Christmas spirit is giving, like sharing time with others and giving of yourself,” Redd said. “One of the things we know that is actually also beneficial for mental health is volunteering. You don’t have to feel it- Maybe the goal isn’t to get into the holiday spirit; maybe the goal is to use yourself in a way that benefits others.”
Zoe Sugg, one of my favorite YouTubers, encompasses this giving spirit through her annual VlogMas series. Unlike previous years, on December 1st, Zoe did not put out a video to kickstart her daily vlogs in December leading up to Christmas Day. On December 2nd, she decided to record a precursor to her Vlogmas series explaining why.
“Recently I’ve just not been feeling great mental health wise, and what’s annoying is that I didn’t really want to say that,” Sugg explained.
As a YouTuber who so passionately represents holiday cheer as an integrated part of her brand, Sugg felt ashamed of her struggle during the holidays.
“Everyone knows how much I love Christmas; I can’t start a Vlogmas crying into the abyss,” she said.
However, instead of shoving these emotions under the rug, she took the opportunity to advocate for mental health and express some truths that are consistent with Redd’s advice.
“It’s far more common than you think; 1 in 4 people have mental health issues. Vlogmas isn’t always going to be twinkly lights and smiley, happy faces. It might be, sometimes… but this is my real life and I didn’t start Vlogmas yesterday because I just had a really awful day. I needed that day to do nothing and cry a bit,” Sugg said.
As Redd suggested, what helped Sugg feel better is to give some of her time for others.
“I know how much Vlogmas means to a lot of people, and I know for the people that are having a crappy day, whatever I upload is what makes you feel better. I think filming will make me feel better… sometimes filming makes me feel better.”
For some people, the theme of giving is an effective way to navigate the holiday blues. But the solution is different for everyone.
“What helps me cut through the chaos is to say what’s important about this time? For me it’s important to spend time with my family and it’s important to have experiences together,” Redd said. “What is the theme for you of the holiday season? What’s the word or the theme that you can really rally around? That’s what you hold on to; just let all the other stuff fade away.”
If you are feeling stressed this holiday season, here are a few resources:
UT Counseling & Mental Health Center: https://cmhc.utexas.edu/
24/7 Crisis Hotline (UT Students Only): 512-471-2255
Navigating the Holidays and Mental Health (our article & guide): http://www.burntx.com/2019/12/06/navigating-the-holidays-and-mental-health/
Image by Annie Spratt from Pixabay