Grief & Anxiety at Christmastime

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.

What is happening to me?

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.

Extra challenges

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?

How can I cope?

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!

12 tips to ease anxiety

  1. Breathing: try taking a deep slow breath through your nose, then breathing out slowly through your mouth as if blowing up a balloon. Do this 3 times; or try breathing in for 4, holding your breath for 7, and breathing out slowly for 8 - do about 4 cycles of this (4,7,8 breathing).
  2. Do some exercise: walking, swimming, running, skipping - anything which raises the heart-rate a bit, to help reset it! Try to go out if possible, as being close to nature can be very calming and restorative, but even if you can’t get out regularly, it’s worth setting up a quiet corner indoors with some plants where you can relax and absorb the under-rated benefits of ‘green energy’.
  3. ‘Reality-check’ your thoughts to see if they are facts or just your opinion (a bit like fake news!), e.g. My friend didn’t answer my text, so she’s not speaking to me.
  4. Wellbeing: look after yourself and get enough sleep (for help, visit the Sleep Foundation's website). Also, you could try some yoga or a mindfulness or relaxation app.
  5. Eat a healthy diet: avoid overdoing carbs and sugar, leading to sugar spikes and crashes, which can feel very much like anxiety.
  6. Don’t take too much caffeine, which can raise the heart rate.
  7. Don’t rely on alcohol (itself a depressant), or cigarettes, or gambling or drugs as coping strategies.
  8. Restrict your exposure to bad news and in any case, only access news from a trusted source such as responsible TV/radio or newspapers. Also, in general, keep your screen time to reasonable levels – and avoid it before bed and during the night.
  9. Talk to someone you trust.
  10. Accept that everyone feels worried, sad or anxious sometimes.
  11. Don’t fall into the Avoidance Trap of steering clear from anything that might act as a trigger and cause you to remember sad feelings, in the mistaken belief it will help you avoid pain. All it will do is exhaust you and make you feel you’re trapped with more and more restrictions, which becomes suffocating. Try leaning into the feelings of pain or sadness, a little at a time. Remember, grief and love are like reverse sides of the same coin, so in a way, grief is a tribute to the love you shared.
  12. Plan ahead: if you go out socially, have an exit strategy (if possible involving a reliable friend). Likewise, have a little line of response ready so you can trot it out automatically when you meet someone and find their well-meant condolences distressing – e.g. “Thanks for asking...Don’t worry I just get a bit tearful sometimes but I’m getting there...” (Or if you don’t want to have this conversation in the street, suggest going for a quick cuppa, again with an exit strategy - but also remember there’s nothing wrong with tears!)

Further help

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.

 

Grief & Anxiety at Christmastime

About the Author

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.