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The coronavirus outbreak is affecting the way we are able to grieve. You may be dealing with sudden loss or trauma, and may be cut off from your usual support network. FIND OUT MORE
Christmas can be a time of heightened emotion, grief and anxiety for those who have been bereaved. In this article, Cruse Scotland volunteer, Graham Stevenson, offers advice about coping with anxiety during the festive period.
December 08, 2021
Christmas is associated both in religion and in our culture as a happy time for close family and friends to be together, and will often be deeply embedded in our (possibly rose-tinted) memories of childhood. So it is not surprising that Christmas makes us more keenly aware of those no longer with us.
Grieving often brings with it a rollercoaster of emotions, unpredictable in number, sequence and intensity, with examples going from numbness and anger, to guilt, pain and unbearable sadness. On top of that, however, some people find that all sorts of unwelcome thoughts take the opportunity to crowd in. Our secure world, where we know who is part of it and how we operate, has suddenly been up-ended. When all certainties are swept away, anything can happen - especially, we imagine, anything bad. And so our overactive thoughts set to work, unleashed to imagine the worst...
How will I cope alone? What other unbearable disasters are lying in wait? What illness, money problems, accidents or other deaths will strike? What if I can’t do my job and lose it? How will I look after the children? What will I do if I break down and get emotional in public - or cry when I see a friend? That would be just awful. I can’t even bear to leave the house in case I meet anyone or in case something really bad happens. The world no longer feels safe.
This is the world of anxiety, where our brain’s response to perceived danger is activated. This was originally a defence mechanism to prepare us to fight or flee from immediate danger to life – handy if we meet a sabre-toothed tiger, but less so when going shopping! In anxiety, this reaction spirals out of control and threatens to overwhelm us with both mental and physical symptoms all-too-familiar to sufferers, such as a feeling of nervousness or being ‘on the edge’, trembling, nausea, sweating, a racing heartbeat, tight chest, hyperventilation and - worst of all - panic attacks, when sufferers can truly believe they are having a heart attack and at risk of dying.
The Covid pandemic, with its high death toll, has exacerbated the situation, resulting in widespread distress. We may also have suffered our own bereavements which have felt intensely traumatic, with it being impossible to visit the sick, comfort the dying, or even to be part of a normal funeral. For months, upsetting scenes have confronted us daily on TV screens; and at a time when all kinds of emotions are whirling around us, anxiety is understandably affecting many more people in a world that feels unsafe and unpredictable at every level.
Many families are living with the pain of bereavement, which can be intensified when others are celebrating. All this magnifies the problem of how to cope with Christmas. So is it any surprise that more people than ever feel in need of some help?
If you’re suffering from anxiety, what can you do to combat it? In the long term, if problems are persistent, it is probably best to seek professional help through your GP. But meantime, here are some tips to try for yourself. The aim is to calm down the activated threat response in the brain which causes these extremely uncomfortable panicky feelings. As the effects of anxiety are largely felt in the body, you can feel some direct benefit from working with breathing and physical movement as well as general mind-calming techniques.
And remember the golden rule at this time of year: keep Christmas manageable. Quite simply - don’t try to do too much!
For more tips on wellbeing, look up the Scottish Government website Clear Your Head
For information on how to cope with anxiety and panic attacks, look up nhsinform.scot
If feeling distressed, phone the Samaritans on 116 123 (available 24/7); or phone Breathing Space on 0800 83 85 87 (evenings and weekends).
For support with a bereavement, contact Cruse Scotland via our free helpline (0808 802 6161), which will be open every day of the Christmas holidays.
Graham Stevenson - Cruse Scotland Volunteer
Graham's main career has been in teaching and supporting a range of secondary pupils and adults, both in UK and overseas. For 20 years, she taught in a large British International School with 55 nationalities and many religions. She has also taught English to refugees arriving in the UK, while helping them become familiar with British life.
Graham has been a counselling volunteer with Cruse Scotland for 13 years, supporting adult clients from a variety of backgrounds and ages, including adults with learning disabilities.
Graham is a keen writer and has written and edited a number of newspaper articles and blogs focusing on various bereavement topics.