Following the news that Christmas 2020 will be very different for households across the UK, Happiful’s head writer, Kathryn Wheeler, reflects on managing bad news and finding hope in hard times, and reaches out to mental health professionals for their advice
It was midday Saturday 19 December when I first started picking up on whispers that something big was about to be announced. By 4.30 PM, push notifications, reports, tweets, texts, clips, and frantic phone calls confirmed that the planned relaxation of lockdown rules over Christmas had been cancelled.
As a writer, I make it my job to avoid clichés. But, sometimes, an old saying is the only thing that will do, and I truly felt as though a rug had been pulled out from underneath my feet.
In the hours that followed, I found myself working through a variation of the five stages of grief – denial, anger, then straight through to sadness. I was glued to my phone, shooting messages back-and-forth with friends and family, making calls, and refreshing social media, until I took myself to bed at 8 PM, utterly exhausted.
There was, of course, sadness around my own situation – I so desperately wanted to see my loved ones, to have that brief taste of seasonal normality that is, for many of us, concentrated in the familiarity of homecooked food and the chatter of Christmas dinner table catch-ups.
But beyond that, my heart broke for those who now faced the prospect of Christmas in isolation, for those who would be missing out on seeing family for the first time in months, for those living through illnesses, poverty, bereavement, and for those trapped in unsafe homes – domestic abuse historically spikes over national holidays, and has already intensified in lockdown.
This year, more than ever before, we’ve seen the number of people experiencing mental health problems rise exponentially. Christmas is always a difficult time for those living with mental illnesses – with limited access to vital services, financial worries, childcare, relationships, alcohol, and burnout all coming into play. But now, as we watch the numbers of those experiencing anxiety and depression rise, many may now be dealing with additional mental health challenges for the first time in their lives. At this point, I can’t deny the anger I felt at policies that seemed to so completely disregard the wellbeing of a nation.
Following anger, then came the guilt. Guilt that I was somehow shirking my duty as a citizen with my personal disappointment – after all, there’s a global pandemic going on, millions of people are at risk, and here I am, tearing up over the prospect of missing out on sharing a cheeseboard with my family; really, am I that shallow?
But, of course, the significance of this time of year runs deeper than that, and I wasn’t alone in my reaction.
“As the news broke on Saturday afternoon, I found myself initially in a state of disbelief: Christmas is cancelled? It took a while for this devastating news to sink in and, as it did, panic and concern started to emerge. How would this affect my family? What do I do now?,” shares Bibi Jamieson, an integrative psychotherapeutic counsellor. “We had been given some semblance of certainty, normality, and joy at the prospect of having a few days off to be together on Christmas Day. We had been given hope, which we clung on to after what has been a year of certain uncertainty. We had an expectation that wasn't met.
“As I sit here in my practice room, looking at the mural on my wall declaring, ‘Faith, Hope and Love’ – three words, which are so necessary for our emotional wellbeing – I would like to inspire some of these words as we figure out how to get through these difficult feelings.”
If you’re struggling with the new Christmas restrictions, Bibi implores you to give yourself the space and time that you need to grieve.
“Feelings of anger, betrayal, panic, disappointment, powerless, and anxiety may come up – so let your tears of frustration and sadness fall. Be gentle, kind, and compassionate to yourself. You are human, allow yourself to be human,” she advises.
“After acknowledging your feelings, we need to remember how resilient and creative we have been this year. We have survived so far, we have done what we thought was impossible, we have adapted. My mantra for this is: ‘We’ve done this before, we can do it again.’ We literally need to flip the script and awaken the warrior within. We can do this,” Bibi concludes.
As Bibi explores, faith, love, and hope are so often at the core of any positive progression. And that sentiment of the importance of tuning-in is also true for life coach Carolyne Bennett.
“It’s important to feed our minds with positivity, step away from negative reports, and set boundaries when it comes to conversations that fuel our anxieties. Because if we’re anxious and stressed, we’re not thinking clearly – remember to remain in the present, breath, and focus on the solution, not the problem,” says Carolyne.
“For those who will now be facing Christmas alone due to distance or the tier system, please be kind to yourself – plan a lovely day for yourself, even if you don’t feel it’s worth it, give yourself some real TLC, reconnect with people you’ve lost touch with, play virtual games with friends or family, have a toast together on Zoom and use it as a day to focus on the year ahead: what you want to achieve, what your goals are, what makes you feel alive and the steps you’re going to take to achieve these things. Try to see this as a challenge you need to overcome, rather than a problem you cannot face,” Carolyne suggests.
“If you do feel overwhelmed, step outside, breathe and focus on your surroundings to bring you back into the present, because as we start to relax it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which releases feel-good hormones,” Carolyne continues. “Take your time and focus on five things that you can see, four things that you can feel (such as the wind on your face), three things you can hear, two you can smell, and one that you can taste.”
As well as the techniques that Carolyne suggests, time is a healer. When I woke up the morning after the announcement, I felt a little lighter. And now, as we begin the last week before Christmas, I feel lighter again. As both Bibi and Carolyne capture, a lesson that I have learned this year is how vital it is to sit with your emotions, to allow yourself to feel them, and then once you’ve processed them, to let them go.
Coincidentally, today – 21 December – is the winter solstice. From now on, the days will begin to get longer, the light lingering marginally more. It’s a reminder of the cyclical nature of our world and of our lives, something that I personally find comfort in when feeling my way through darker patches. The promise of light doesn’t make the current darkness any lesser – hope doesn’t mean you need to deny the reality of a struggle, it doesn’t mean you’re failing if you’re still feeling it – but it’s there, waiting on the horizon. And that’s something that’s worth holding onto.
- If you’re in crisis and are concerned for your own safety, call 999, or go to A&E
- Call Samaritans on 116 123 or email them on firstname.lastname@example.org