This is the first in a series of quarterly articles focussing on topical issues, which we will publish by Alistair Mork-Chadwick, a counselling psychologist based in Howick, KZN.
The festive season is almost upon us and many people will once again have to put a lot of effort into wearing a smile for friends and family when, in reality, they are feeling stressed and unhappy.
My experience as a psychologist tells me that many 'normal' people are beginning to feel increasing levels of stress as we head towards the December school holidays and Christmas. The 'festive season' is typically one of the most stressful and/or depressing times of the year. The heightened expectations of family togetherness, along with the expense of buying gifts, and the pressure of last minute shopping can all combine to leave one feeling stressed and 'depressed'. And, unfortunately, it does not end there for many of us because of the following negative experiences:
Isolation - Many of us find ourselves alone at Christmas time. The reasons include relocation to an area far from relatives, a marital break-up or a family estrangement. The emphasis on family, friends and shared good times during the 'festive season' can make many of us feel depressed and unloved.
Family tensions - All families experience tension to some degree. Part of the reason why Christmas time can be so stressful is the unrealistic hope of coming together as a happy, loving family.
Separation or divorce - It can be hard for a 'fractured' family to face Christmas. Perhaps the parents have separated or divorced, or a family member is overseas and unable to attend the traditional celebrations.
Step-families – Many South African families are step-families, while blended families (partners who each have children from prior relationships) are also becoming increasingly common. Often, Christmas for these families can be awkward and uncomfortable.
Bereavement - Significant occasions, such as Christmas, are always difficult for a bereaved family or individual. This is exacerbated because happy memories (of past Christmases) are much more easily recalled to mind than the less happy ones.
Looking back without joy - The close of another year prompts many of us to reflect on our achievements and/or disappointments over the previous 12 months. Many people mourn the loss of another year of their lives.
In general, the festive season comes with a broad range of unrealistic expectations, not only of shared happy times, but also that we will have a joyful and relaxed time in general. The reality is often very different, and experiencing any of the above makes stress, anxiety and depression common during this period.
My advice is that if nothing else, reassure yourself that these difficult feelings are normal and appreciate that they are likely to be due to a combination of Christmas-related factors, including money worries and naive expectations of festive cheer. Remind yourself that many of these negative feelings will pass once the New Year is underway. And, perhaps most importantly, don't expect a hassle-free Christmas. If you find certain family members an ongoing challenge during the year, you can be sure there'll be tension during this period (and at Christmas lunch). And if all else fails drop in for a session or two with your local psychologist.