How this year's Christmas will be different – and how to cope

While many enjoy the holidays, for some it’s a particularly rough time of year and with everything that has happened in 2020, this year’s festive season may be even more difficult to manage.

Professor Ian Hickie, the Co-Director of the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney told Yahoo News Australia, historically the Christmas and New Year period can be tough on people’s mental health.

“For many people it’s a time to take a break, catch up with family, go to the cricket, whatever,” he said.

“For others, particularly those who are struggling, or who are isolated, or are in conflict with their family and others, it's often a really difficult time.

“It's difficult because expectations are high.”

Christmas is a very difficult time for many and this year might be more difficult than ever for some. Source: Getty Images
Christmas is a very difficult time for many and this year might be more difficult than ever for some. Source: Getty Images

Prof Hickie explained during this time many services one might access during the better part of the year for help with mental health, may not be accessible.

“So the health care system goes on holiday and many of the people who provide them with support, those services, are reduced to emergency services,” he explained.

“Many people who need support, get less support during that period, and the period in which they're often feeling more isolated and have more difficulties.”

This is why in the past there has been more presentations to hospital emergency departments during the holiday period.

During this time, Beyond Blue’s helplines will remain open, for readers seeking advice over suicide prevention or help during the coronavirus period - both numbers are listed at the bottom of this article.

How will Covid impact Christmas?

This year has been like no other, to say the very least thanks largely to the coronavirus pandemic raging across the globe and causing millions of deaths and massive economic issues.

This year, it will be particularly stressful for NSW residents is the emergence of a second wave of Covid-19 cases in the days before Christmas this year which have seen new gathering restrictions put into place.

“Levels of anxiety, depression, concern, are already up,” Prof Hickie explained.

Many people will rely on their loved ones for support, however for some that may not be possible this year - whether it be due to domestic borders being closed, or close ones being stranded overseas.

There’s also a level of uncertainty with regards the the future - whether it be due to employment, travel or just generally concern about when this pandemic will end and this breeds anxiety.

Prof Hickie said there has been a general anxiety all year, this extended to the end of the year, with so much uncertainty.

It’s more important than ever to have the social structures in place to ensure we can all cope this Christmas, Prof Hickie says, but the situation is fragile and health advice can swiftly change.

Cars are seen queuing for a drive-thru COVID-19 testing clinic on Pittwater road at Warriewood on the Northern Beaches, amid a new Covid cluster
Sydney's Northern Beaches Covid cluster prompted restrictions and border restrictions just days before Christmas. Source: AAP

Alcohol use increased during Covid pandemic

During the course of the pandemic, many people turned to alcohol for comfort. This has lead to fears that alcohol dependence is set to rise.

Prof Hickie said at home alcohol sales have "dramatically" gone up, which means people who were not previously drinking at home have started doing so.

“Mental health problems, domestic violence, family arguments, relationship breakdowns, suicidal behaviour, are all exacerbated by excessive alcohol intake,” he said.

He added people who previously did not have a drinking problem have now moved to a phase where drinking may be a problem.

Having someone who has a problem with alcohol drink less, while everyone consumes more is not very helpful, Prof Hickie said.

“You can really help by limiting the degree of alcohol consumption for the whole group by not singling out a particular person,” he said.

“Not to interfere with the normal celebration and sociability as a whole, but just seeing the moderation issue as a collective response not just an individual response.”

How to celebrate Christmas this year

Prof Hickie has some rather controversial advice for Christmas, which does make sense if you don’t get along with your family: don’t spend it with them.

“Not all families work,” he says.

“And so many family issues cause Christmas to go badly. If they've gone badly before, they're going to go badly again.”

He says generally, apart from Christmas, most of our important relationships are outside of our families.

“I do think this year has really emphasised how important your own small world network is, your community of people, which is not necessarily family,” Prof Hickie said.

Cropped shot of a group of people making a toast at a dining table.
Covid may impact how you celebrate Christmas - whether it be travel plans or the amount of people you celebrate with. Source: Getty Images

This doesn’t diminish the value of family, especially to those who enjoy their family’s company, but rather allows for people to evaluate the important relationships in their life and surround yourself with those people.

Beyond Blue advises to break up Christmas plans to alleviate stress, which is also a way to manage numbers, or if you are spending time alone, allow plenty of time for things you enjoy.

“Occasions like Christmas can also bring up feelings of sadness and grief for people who have lost someone special. If you feel you can, talk about your loved one, share memories – and tears,” Beyond Blue says.

“You may also like to spend some time alone so you can think about your loved one. It’s also OK to enjoy yourself, don’t feel guilty, it doesn’t mean you don’t miss them.”

It is okay to say no to a festive event, just like any other event throughout the year.

Regardless of plans, make sure you are adhering to current Public Health orders.

What you should do if you’re not coping over Christmas

If you’re not coping over the Christmas and New Year period, tell someone.

“The sharing of the experience in the first instance, is the most therapeutic thing,” Prof Hickie said.

“Suffering in silence and suffering alone is the riskiest thing.”

When things are overwhelming, health professionals are necessary, but expressing your distress is important, especially to someone you feel comfortable with.

"People shouldn't feel like they are burden, they shouldn't feel like if they speak out they will ruin everybody else's Christmas," Prof Hickie says.

If necessary, call a helpline or seek medical advice.

Lean on loved ones if you are down over the Christmas period and seek professional help if necessary. Source: Getty Images
Lean on loved ones if you are down over the Christmas period and seek professional help if necessary. Source: Getty Images

How to help a loved one who is struggling

“The first thing is not what do they do, but what do you do,” Prof Hickie said.

“I think there's a wider community responsibility to try and remain connected with those people we know are in trouble.”

People who are having a difficult time may be more inclined to withdraw themselves and might think their loved ones might not want them there or have space for them, Prof Hickie says.

He says it’s important to include those who are struggling, and it’s when people aren’t participating, those around them should be concerned.

It’s important to plan how you will help those that may be struggling and work to include them in festivities, Prof Hickie said.

If you are supporting someone who has anxiety, depression or other mental health issues, Beyond Blue also advises to look after yourself also.

How to deal with distance

Some people won’t make it home for Christmas, or they won’t be able to fulfil those travel plans, Prof Hickie emphasises the importance of telecommunication as a way to be inclusive of those who cannot physically be there.

“I think putting an emphasis on using the telecommunication as best we can to be inclusive of those we’re most physically disconnected from, I do think is important,” he said.

“So I think actually going out of your way to connect with those people, because I think that is hard because we just don't know when you know anyone's going to be able to travel.”

Make sure you keep in contact with those who cannot physically be there this Christmas. Source: Getty Images
Make sure you keep in contact with those who cannot physically be there this Christmas. Source: Getty Images

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

Feeling worried or struggling to cope during the Coronavirus pandemic? Visit or speak with trained counsellors on 1800 512 348.

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