Some of the people I know regard Christmas with a mixture of pleasant anticipation and borderline misery. Different things seem to press their buttons. For some it’s the expense and commercialization of Christmas, for others it’s the extra work involved, or it’s coping with relatives, or it’s all of these and more besides. But is it really as bad as all that? I’m using this opportunity to unpack some of the issues that seem to follow us around each year in order to try and gain a different perspective.
Let’s start with the big one: suicide rates at Christmas. There is an ongoing and inaccurate assertion that suicide rates peak during the Christmas period. Let me take a step back and say that it depends where you look, and what you look for, as to the statistics you’ll find. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,for example, refer to holiday suicides as “a long perpetuated myth. The CDC points out that the suicide rate is actually at its lowest in December, noting that “the rate peaks in the spring and the fall.” But before we readjust our thinking too rapidly, it’s useful to look elsewhere. One large Australian study, published in 2014, came to different conclusions, finding statistically significant increases in suicides in Australia on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. This is just one example of different trends in different countries.
In dealing with the big numbers involved with suicide (roughly 800,000 globally per year) there’s a danger that we lose sight of the fact that December is an especially troubling time for many people. Even accepting the fact that the spring may be an especially high period for suicides, we should realize that this isn’t a competition over numbers. The CDC’s own figures show a post-Christmas spike in suicide rates. A postponement effect, sometimes termed the “broken promise effect,” is thought to account for this. The assumption is that potential suicides are held off because Christmas is a time of hope of hope and optimism. When this passes, and hopes of a change are dashed, the depressed person sees only a bleak future.
It’s easy to allow seasonal spending to get out of hand but there are simple ways to keep spending in perspective. Getting into debt, or further into debt, can and does result in some major mental health issues. Just a little forward planning can make all the difference. One way to keep perspective is to talk about gift-giving with friends and family. For example, why not have a “children only” pact, or an upper price limit for everyone? Look out for discount vouchers for supermarkets and if you’re prone to overstocking on food then a website like lovefoodhatewaste.com might be useful.
The best rules are your own
Do you ever feel there is something manufactured and just a bit cynical about the Christmas season? The music, the advertising, the (false) equation of more money spent equals greater fun and contentment. If you do, you’re certainly not alone. The more our actions are out of step with our beliefs, the more uncomfortable we feel. To reduce this discomfort we either need to change our attitude so it’s more in line with what we’re doing, or we change what we’re doing so it aligns with how we feel. In other words, there are no rules that say we must behave in a certain way in order for Christmas to be a success. It is quite possible to manage pre-Christmas anxieties.
If you feel that Christmas or the New Year is weighing you down, it’s time to get involved in your own wellbeing. Avoid the trap of doing things just because it’s always been done that way, or because you feel that’s the only way. You may have to compromise with others but there’s always scope for looking at things differently. The Christmas season has come to represent so much more than it did even a few decades ago and this has heightened expectations. However, reality has a way of counteracting expectations that are set too high, so the simple answer is to try to work with Christmas in a way that suits you.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.