The Christmas season is regarded as a time of festivity. The reality however, is that stress, anxiety
loneliness, depression and conflict can be amplified at this time of year. The COVID-19 pandemic has posed many challenges and many are struggling.
‘Christmas blues’ is a term coined for the emotions experienced this time of year. The Catholic News
got insight into this and other issues from Aisha Perry, Counselling Psychologist (Trauma and Crisis Interventions) and Dyslexia Tutor, with Counselling Matters Ltd.
Also called ‘seasonal affective disorder’, Christmas blues “is a type of depression that is caused by
changes in seasons”, Perry said. One of the main changes that impact this is the amount of sunlight.
In foreign countries in which there are changes of season, the winter can bring cold weather and less sunlight. Locally though, we only have dry and wet seasons. Perry noted that the days are shorter and nights longer. We know this because from September darkness falls earlier.
She explained, “This reduction in the sunlight can put persons at risk of Christmas blues…. There are two key at-risk populations for depression that would be women and persons with pre-existing
conditions.” Some of the symptoms experienced are: changes in appetite and sleep patterns, and
less zeal for activities normally enjoyed.
Coping can be difficult at this time and for persons who have lost loved ones this year, they will
struggle with grief. Perry provided a few simple ways to cope:
Get more sunlight. Sunlight is important for mood and helps regulate levels of brain chemicals such
as melatonin and serotonin, as well as Vitamin D. “We especially need that serotonin because it is
that happy chemical. It makes us feel really happy and of course, we need the Vitamin D because it
promotes the serotonin activity in the brain.”
Use getting sunlight as an opportunity to connect with nature.
Exercise. Take walks in the community and public parks. Persons who are homebound can take short walks during commercial breaks on television or do workouts. “YouTube can be your best friend at this time, there’s an endless source of home workouts, even Instagram for young persons, so you can use social media.”
Feed the body. Consume well-balanced meals with fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly foods
high in Omega 3 fatty acids like walnuts and flaxseeds. “Eating right helps us to obtain the energy
we need and helps to reduce mood swings.” She also suggests Vitamin D supplements be
incorporated as part of a balanced diet. Perry cautioned about the consumption of alcohol because “alcohol can increase depressed mood.”
Engaging in relaxation activities. A simple technique is thinking positive. Although it can be easy to
connect with the negative at this time, a personal decision can be made to think positively. This can
help change mood, the way an individual will do things, and open them up to solutions they would
not have seen before. Find time to mediate, engage in aromatherapy to soothe the mind or listen to
music that is enjoyed.
Perry said if the depressive mood persists and begins impacting interactions with friends and family
and the ability to function effectively on the job, the next step could be seeking mental health
support at the mental health centers available across the country or a private provider.
Living alone or the inability to connect with persons in the normal way because of the preventive
measures for COVID-19 may increase loneliness. To counteract this in a healthy way Perry shared the
following: indulge in a hobby e.g., doing word puzzles, journalling; engage in an enjoyable activity
such as going to the beach; start a project around the house.
“Doing and completing a project around the house that you want to do and that you can manage,
even if it is just one can really give you a sense of accomplishment,” she said.
Being in the same physical space with family and friends is not practical for many persons at this
time but it is still important to make contact with the person or persons who matter. “Engage in
video calls and feel free to use the traditional approach and just pick up the phone, even if it is a
brief conversation to say ‘How are you going?’, ‘Long time no see!’.”
Expectation is high at Christmas time particularly children who look forward to receiving gifts. It does
not end even when there is reduced income, job loss and the inability to celebrate Christmas as
before. How to manage expectation? The main thing is communication. “Being very specific in terms
of what is happening…whether mom and dad can or can’t afford get you gifts at this point in time is
something that you should not be afraid to tell your children and of course, using simple language
they can understand,” Perry said. She added that children should be allowed to share their feelings
and have it acknowledged; parents should not feel they have to rationalise or prevent them from
The present situation can be an opportunity for the entire family to come up with new and creative
ideas to celebrate even on a reduced budget. Perry said this can take the form of making gifts
instead of buying them. “These gifts you make can be simple; it really just means celebrating each
other…getting everyone involved in the preparation of the meal and include that in a greater way as
part of the family celebration.” Other suggestions: writing letters, creating gift cards, and sharing
with each person how much they are appreciated.
Perry said: “Christmas is so much more than just the gift giving; this is an opportunity for you to
remind yourself of that and step out of the material aspects and the level of consumerism that has
overtaken the celebration at this time”. Don’t be afraid to do things differently as a family.
Dealing with conflict
The pandemic had widespread impact and brought changes which can lead to different levels of
stress. Stress increases anxiety and persons who are closest can be most impacted. Restrictions on
movement means “We may find ourselves getting into more conflicts with being more quarrelsome
or just butting heads with people in our families and who are part of our everyday spaces”.
Perry said the first thing to recognise is that conflict is normal and the response is not about
avoidance but managing situations more effectively. Key to this is a willingness to listen and hear
the other’s point-of-view. “There should be no one person dominating the conflict.” Another key
point is to try and talk about what is troubling without being combative and blaming or attacking
each other because this can escalate the conflict. Perry said to be specific when talking about
“Avoid generalising behaviours like saying ‘you always do this or you always do that’ but pinpoint the
very specific thing or specific occasion,” she added. Parents, husbands and wives can agree to have
“code words” to signal when they are not ready to talk about something without running on
emotions. Perry said for example, they can say to each other, “listen I am in the red zone. I am
feeling irritable, can we continue this discussion at a later time?” She further stated, “know when to
give each other space and take a break. This is something that adults, couples in the household can
agree to beforehand.” She advised not to personalise other people’s feelings.
A place in the home can be designated as a no-conflict zone, where no arguments take place. It
creates a space of emotional safety within the home.
If conflict persists and intensifies in spite of the different strategies used to manage, then families
should consider getting a neutral third party to help them mediate the conflict. It can be someone
who is professionally trained in mediation or consider getting family therapy.
Health a priority during COVID Christmas
Perry said the public is being asked to do things differently in celebrating Christmas, feeling that
there is a lack of control over personal decisions can make people disregard the regulations. Perry
said one of the main things to recognise is the need for acceptance; COVID-19 is something the
society and world is confronting. “We have to reconfigure the mindset of how we are going to do
Perry said each person should really be prioritising their health. A key part of the mindset change is
protecting family and friends with whom they want to spend time and enjoy the season. It is
paramount to adhere to the protocols of sanitising, mask wearing and keeping social gatherings
within the prescribed limits.
Perry said the public has to trust those in authority charged with the responsibility to safeguard
public health and ensure “we are all safe as a country so we can live to see and celebrate Christmas
at the end of 2021 and in other years to come.”