Welcome to Am I Normal?, where writer and mental health advocate Jill Stark challenges our notions of ‘normal’ and celebrates our differences in this myth-busting series offering hope, comfort and practical advice to anyone who’s ever wondered "Is it just me?".

At the risk of sounding like the Christmas Grinch, I’m not a big fan of the festive season.

It’s a time of year when we’re meant to be merry and bright – the days passing in a champagne-tinged blur of tinsel and turkey and endless holiday fun.

And yet, every year I find my mental health taking a nose-dive as the stress of the season catches up with me.

Amid the hectic frenzy of end-of-year deadlines and Christmas shopping and social engagements, I often feel a bit lost.

Everywhere I look I see scenes of family togetherness – Hallmark card depictions of the ‘perfect’ Christmas.

It can be an isolating experience if, like me, you live alone, and your family are on the other side of the world.

I often find myself struggling with that familiar sense of splintered belonging while everyone else seems to be having the time of their lives with their nearest and dearest.

If you can relate, then rest assured you’re not alone in feeling alone.

More than two million Australians will feel socially isolated during the festive season, according to Salvation Army research.

For those who are grieving lost loved ones or the end of a relationship, it can be a particularly difficult time of year.

Financial stress can also be a concern as we’re bombarded with marketing for Christmas bargains and end-of-year-sales, ramping up the pressure to buy lavish gifts.

Steve Ellen, professor of psychiatry at the University of Melbourne and co-author of Mental, said social media can exacerbate feelings of anxiety as we compare ourselves to others.

“If someone already feels isolated, Christmas can really exaggerate loneliness, particularly if it seems that everyone else is having a great time surrounded by people they love,” Dr Ellen said, “That sense of social comparison can ramp up the expectation that Christmas should be a time of blissful happiness when for many people, it’s actually a time of high stress."

“They might feel pressure to have the ‘perfect’ day but when there are tensions and conflicts in families, being confined with relatives for an intense period of time can actually be quite challenging, or even traumatic if you’re forced to be around someone who has caused you great hurt in the past.”

"...it can be a particularly difficult time of year."

Dr Ellen said Christmas is usually a time of increased alcohol consumption, which can increase the risk of conflict erupting over the glazed ham and roast potatoes.

It’s enough to make you want to retire to bed and wake up when it’s January.

But there are steps you can put in place to help you survive the holidays and reduce your stress. The most important thing you can do is manage your expectations – of yourself and of your family members.

“It’s an incredibly busy time of year and it can feel like a real juggling act just trying to get everything organised – from the logistics of Christmas lunch to planning holidays and managing work deadlines, which often pile up because everyone is trying to get their workload tied off before the end of the year,” Dr Ellen said.

“But you have to accept that you can’t do everything. You don’t have to be perfect. And it’s really important to try to balance all that time with family and social engagements with time for yourself – otherwise you’ll end up burnt out and exhausted."

“Don’t forget it is a holiday – so get some rest, sleep in, and plan some time for exercise.” For those who are facing their first Christmas without a loved one, Dr Ellen said it was important to acknowledge the grief.

“It’s ok to feel whatever you’re feeling. Don’t feel obliged to put on a happy face. But it can help to have an exit strategy in place so you can quietly step away from the festivities and take some time for yourself if things become too much,” he said.

"...try to spend time...with the people you like most."

If you’re worried about having too much time alone, check out what’s on in your area – the local council will often run events.

Check in with other people who might find this time of year hard – those who are recently divorced or separated or might be struggling with illness.

And if you’re stressed about spending time with difficult family members, try not to fixate on unhappy memories.

“Just because Christmas has been bad in the past doesn’t mean it always has to be that way. If you can let go of past conflicts and try not to revisit old fights or grudges it will be a much calmer day."

“Also try to spend time over the holidays with the people you like most. So, if the festive season with family is a challenge, balance it out with time with friends and other people who make you feel good in the week after Christmas."

“Try not to become trapped by traditions. New celebrations that better meet your current life might prove less stressful and may lead to new traditions.”

Dr Ellen also recommended paying attention to basic emotional first-aid to stay well during the silly season – try to get enough sleep, eat as well as you can, minimise alcohol intake and make time to exercise.

And remember, despite all the hype and the expectation, Christmas is just another day.

Top tips for managing festive stress:

  • Let go of expectation. You don’t have to do everything. There is no such thing as ‘perfect.’
  • Take time out for yourself – it’s not selfish, it’s restorative.
  • If Christmas with family is challenging, make time to spend with people whose company you enjoy.
Related reading: Coping with Christmas

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