On the darker side of the sparkle

As the build up to Christmas and the New Year reaches a climax it is for many quite easy to buy into the old maxim ‘ ’tis the season to be jolly’. From the early December Christmas party at work to the last notes of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ the whole holiday season can, if you are lucky, pass by in a blur of festive fun. Of course many of us get stressed at the cost, at the crush in the shops and at the prospect of cooking a dry old bird for ten people. It is a time of year when viruses seem to take great delight in laying us low and we have to deal with sneezing in the stuffing. However, in general the beginning of January marks the end of the old year and the excitement of starting afresh with a new set of resolutions to break before the end of February.

But at the risk of putting a dampener on your celebrations I wanted to raise the real Ghost of Christmases past, present and inevitably the future – depression.

As many as one in three people will experience mental health issues in their lifetime, it is a shocking statistic. It strikes at any time of year of course, not just at Christmas, but still there are people who are unaware of the symptoms in themselves, or in those around them. At this time of year, it is important to recognise that amongst all the tinsel and gift wrap there are thousands of people for whom this festive season is a very difficult time indeed. I am lucky – although I am vulnerable to bouts of depression and anxiety, Christmas is for me a welcome distraction from those thoughts I am prey to at other times of the year. For many others it has the opposite effect. I worked for Mind for two years and we always had to be alert to the needs of those using the service and their families. Sensitivity with the celebrations was vital.

Most people now understand that depression is not just feeling blue for a couple of days when the stress gets too much. You cannot just ‘snap out of it’. It isn’t bursting into tears when you burn the mince pies either; that is most likely to be a relatively healthy response to the stress and a majority of people will have a cry and feel a whole lot better for it.

No, depression is, in my experience, a feeling of being overwhelmed by a dark mood that won’t lift; can’t be lifted. It continues for days and is accompanied by a loss of interest in almost everything that might at one time have given pleasure. Concentration and energy levels slump, anxiety increases, decisions are impossible and in the midst of the depression one feels one has no worth as a person, nothing means anything and guilt becomes unbearable – even if there is nothing to feel guilty about. When the ‘black dog’ of depression is all-consuming, thoughts of suicide nudge their way into what was, at one time, a totally rational brain; one that would be able to cling to the hope that the dog can be driven away. That is when the worst can happen.

Chemical responses to low light levels at this time of year can explain a physical response. Added to this, those who have experienced job loss, the break up of a relationship or a bereavement during the year are especially vulnerable and for people who are on their own Christmas can be the loneliest time of the year, the isolation more acute at a time when everyone else seems to be welcoming love into their lives.

The financial situation we are faced with at the end of 2011 and the levels of debt taken on to fund Christmas has added to the already stressful task of buying presents, providing the anticipated slap-up feasts and living up to family pressures to create that ‘special’ twinkly atmosphere. This can exacerbate a low mood and it is vital that even those who consider themselves mentally healthy take good care of themselves.

So what should you watch out for – in yourself and in others around you?

  • Feeling the need drinking to excess. Don’t. Alcohol is a depressant.
  • Being alone. If you, or someone you know is going to be alone at Christmas it is worthwhile finding if there is a local volunteer project that needs additional help over the season.
  • Arrange to see friends and family over the holiday period. Just for a change of scene. However, where the company seems overwhelming recognise that is perfectly OK to say ‘no’ and make your apologies.
  • Go for a walk. It sounds simple and perhaps a little flip, but scientific studies have shown that physical activity of any kind can be highly beneficial in the struggle to lift all but the most serious depression. I have friends planning on going for long runs on Christmas Day or taking a trip to the beach. Boxing day will see me at the allotment.
  • Seek professional help. Call a helpline such as Samaritans.
  • If you feel depressed it is vital that you talk to friends and family about how you are feeling. Depression is an illness and people should not feel ashamed to express their unhappiness, even if it feels wrong when everyone is trying so hard to be festive. If you have a friends or work colleague who seems to be struggling, let them know you are there if they need you. Listen. The support can make all the difference.

Of course, if you already recognise these symptoms there is still time before the break to see your doctor. The medical profession is getting better at taking depression and anxiety seriously. If you are prescribed anti-depressants they probably won’t start working until the new year, but even a short period on a low dose might be enough to break a cycle.

Remember suicide levels rise to their highest in January. Samaritans expect to receive one call every six seconds over Christmas and New Year.

In fact Samaritans have their own tips for surviving Christmas:

  • Don’t give yourself a hard time. It’s just one day a year and if things go wrong you won’t be alone.
  • Spot the signs of trouble.
  • Look after yourself. Eat and drink sensibly and get some sleep.
  • Confide in someone.
  • Ask for help. You can call Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 to speak to someone in confidence. Calls are charged at a local rate and they are open 24 hours a day every single day of the year.

Take care of your own mental health this Christmas and look out for others around you. Recognise the warning signs and never, ever feel that admitting you are depressed is to admit defeat or failure. There is help and support out there for what might seem even the most impossible situation.

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16 Responses to On the darker side of the sparkle

  1. Viv says:

    Excellent post and much needed.
    Thank you.

  2. rinsimpson says:

    Fantastic, I particularly love the succinct summary of what depression feels like in paragraph 5 – great writing and so true

  3. Ros Bott says:

    Brilliant post. The one thing that is needed when you are depressed, is something like this that tells you that you are not alone and that there are people out there who understand the symptoms. This time of year there is a lot of pressure to be cheerful, and that is often the last thing you need! I occasionally have bouts of the “black dog” myself, and it can be extraordinarily difficult to drag oneself out of it. I find the best way is to be good to myself and not to try and fight it, but just go with it. It passes.

  4. keatsbabe says:

    Thanks Ros! You are so right. I too have learned to be a little kinder to myself.There is a proverb that says ‘This too shall pass’ which I hold on in darker moments.

  5. Excellent, as always, Suzie! Thanks for sharing this.

  6. Ian Stevenson says:

    I visited my 98 year old Mum today (who is in good cheer) We took our grandaughters with us.
    The six year old wanted to sit on my lap and emulated the cat (who are world masters at relaxation) by cuddling up. Those little moments have so much meaning-if we but direct our attention to what is there. Live in the moment -and enjoy the blessings. It’s grasping at them and trying to hold onto them that causes suffering -according to the Buddha. Still a useful view two and half thousands years on. These moments too shall pass but they are our connection with eternity.

  7. Lynne Earthy says:

    Thanks for this blog Suzie. I had a blip at the beginning of the week and felt quite vulnerable so was pleased to see your blog. Merry christmas to you and the family xx

  8. wurzelmeone says:

    Thank you for this post Suzie. A friend and I were talking just last night, and we both said how much we wished that we could hibernate over Christmas and the New Year, so that we were able to escape the ‘Season to be Jolly’. However, we cannot, so we rely on the escape options which which we have developed over many years.

  9. Viv says:

    Looking back, this post came at the same time as I had my worst ever Christmas, both physically and mentally. I got so low, I may have hit below rock bottom.
    Thank you again.

  10. ann says:

    Beautiful words ever written brings me here. I have been in my black hole for quite sometime now. No matter how happy and productive my day was at the end of the day i still feel empty and sad, i don’t know what’s wrong with me…I cried at night and i don’t know why i’m crying…i’m still in the process of figuring out what i really want in my life which i don’t have any clue yet. At the moment i am doing zumba to lift my mood and it does..

  11. Although I am lucky enough not to suffer from depression I do have high levels of anxiety and struggle with the strain of Christmas. I have been criticised for my Bah, Humbug” approach to the festive season, but apart from the expense, the busy-ness of the shops and pressure to create the perfect Christmas, so much family conflict is caused by what should be a happy occasion, beginning often with “whose turn is it to go to whom”.

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