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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, especially when it is combined with grief.
November 28, 2022
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 childhood memories, which themselves are often rose-tinted. So it is not surprising that Christmas makes us more keenly aware of those no longer with us, whether from a recent bereavement where pain is still raw, or through triggering memories of a previous loss.
This year also the death of the Queen in September stirred widespread feelings of loss across the nation. Whether we felt she was simply someone who would always be there, reminding us of our own grandmothers, or a symbol of permanence and security regardless of the politics, visible on our TV screens marking the nation’s major moments with us, or a true example of duty in times of difficulty right up to her death, she was somehow part of the lives of many of us. Although not everyone supported the monarchy, even the fact that most of us have only known life in this “Elizabethan Age” means that the Queen’s death also signalled the end of an era, bringing potential change in our own lives. The Queen’s Speech was also traditionally an integral part of Christmas Day, so here too she will be missed, arousing memories of people’s own losses.
Grieving often brings with it a rollercoaster of emotions, unpredictable in their number, sequence and intensity, with examples going from numbness and anger, to guilt, pain and unbearable sadness and loneliness. Right now, Christmas festivities in particular can seem greatly at odds with our own feelings of grief, and they can amplify our sense of loss. People wonder how to cope.
On top of the natural reactions to grief, however, some people find that all sorts of unwelcome thoughts take the opportunity to crowd in. Of course, this can happen even in normal times after the upset of losing someone dear to us. But how much more likely is this to be the case when at the same time we are facing a whole catalogue of other challenges?
Last year, the Covid pandemic, with its resulting lockdowns and high death toll, resulted in widespread distress. Even now, although Covid is no longer in the headlines, it has not disappeared and is still a cause of death and worry, while the lasting fallout from the initial impact of the pandemic is still keenly felt in many ways.
In addition, this year we seem dominated by political and economic instability at home and abroad, risks from climate change, energy supply threats, a brutal war in Europe, all resulting in steep rises in prices and the cost of living, which are causing intense worries for so many people, unsure even of covering their own or their families’ most basic expenses, far less being able to afford extra for Christmas. My heart goes out to everyone in this situation.
Yet others, however, who may be coping financially, can still find their lives dominated by unmanageable apprehension. Whether our thoughts are based on actual or anticipated situations, when grief combines with other difficulties we feel 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? How will I look after the children? And when in addition we are grieving, even daily interactions feel beyond us. 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 go to the supermarket in case something really bad happens, or leave the house in case I meet anyone. 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 watching the news or 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.
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 or severe, 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 well as general mind-calming techniques. You will see some tips below.
People can find that especially at any time of general festivities, individual problems can be magnified. Try to keep thoughts in proportion, and work out calmly what you can do and what is too much for you or your circumstances. For those of you who are in a position to celebrate Christmas, remember the golden rule at this time of year: keep Christmas manageable, and do what feels right for you.
Try dipping into the following for helpful strategies.
What’s the best way to cope when we are grieving and feel so at odds with the general mood of joy at Christmas? Here are some suggestions to help you or others who are bereaved to cope.
1. Plan ahead
First, there’s no single rule to fit everyone, no specific right and wrong. Grief and our reactions to it are individual. Most important is to put your own needs first, and do what seems right for you and your family, knowing you’re all doing your best in the circumstances. With close family it’s a good idea to discuss what’s possible in advance, especially with children.
If you feel you ought to or want to celebrate and keep up your traditions, go ahead, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself. If you want to avoid all reminders of Christmas that’s fine too.
If children are involved, though, speak about it – creative thinking might be needed to reach suitable compromises in advance. Perhaps start a new tradition to remember your loved one. Don’t be surprised if youngsters have some outbursts on the day – it’s ok to share that you too feel sad, and comfort each other.
2. Allow yourself to feel happy or to grieve
If you are with other people, allow yourself to join in celebrations if you feel like it – it’s not forbidden to feel happy. Or if you are sad, have a quiet moment’s chat with someone understanding if you feel the need. It’s also a good idea to simply encourage people to share memories and celebrate your loved one rather than making an unnatural effort to avoid all mention of them. Have some quiet activities ready for children, who normally tend to dip in and out of their grief. Just check in with yourself, as to what you can cope with – if you’re invited to join other people, you can tell them in advance you might just come for a short time.
3. Try to give the day some structure
Especially if you’re alone, so you are not sinking in a mass of chaotic feelings which can become overwhelming. Perhaps go for a walk, or join in with part of the day with friends and family, call someone or watch a favourite programme, nothing too demanding – you will find your own ideas.
4. Giving Support to someone bereaved at Christmas.
If you are uncertain how to give support at Christmas to someone who is bereaved, basically be guided by them, as to what they want and feel they can manage. Be flexible with plans, so it’s not an issue if they have to cancel or change arrangements, and let them know you’re there if they want to talk, without insisting.
It’s also a good time at or around Christmas, to make contact with anyone bereaved who you think might be alone, just to say you’re thinking of them and there if they need you. A definite offer might just be especially welcome.
1. Breathing: the important thing with breathing exercises is not to overdo it. An important technique is to make the exhale longer than the inhale, which helps calm the over-active brain.
E.g. try taking a deep fairly slow breath through your nose, then breathing out more slowly through your mouth as if blowing up a balloon. Do this 3 times
Or try “4,7,8 breathing”. Breathe in for the count of 4, hold your breath for 7, and breathe out slowly, with a whoosh sound, for a count of 8. Start with up to 4 cycles of this. It is a practice, not a sudden solution, and for best results should be done twice a day.
It is also apparently useful to help you fall asleep. (This technique is described in many places online).
2. Exercise and Nature: get yourself moving - walking, swimming, running, skipping - anything which raises the heart-rate temporarily a bit, to help reset it!
Try to go out every day if possible, even for a short time, (possibly in a garden if you have one) as being close to nature can be very calming and restorative
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 try to get enough sleep (for help, visit the Sleep Foundation's website). Also, you could try some yoga or a mindfulness or relaxation app. Colouring or doing a jigsaw or puzzle or craft activity can also be helpful.
5. Eat a healthy diet: avoid overdoing carbs and sugar, leading to sugar spikes and crashes, which can feel very much like anxiety.
6. Avoid too much caffeine, which can raise the heart rate further.
7. Try not to rely on substances as coping strategies: alcohol (itself a depressant), or cigarettes, or drugs – or indeed gambling…. Stop, and see if you can use one of the other techniques instead.
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- our brains are wired to be comforted with other people.
10. Accept that everyone feels worried, sad or anxious sometimes – gently let it come and let it go (breathe it in, and breathe it out)
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 for specific moments: E.g. 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!)
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, including Christmas Day. Find out more about the other bereavement services we offer.
Across Scotland, 300,000 children, young people and adults face their first Christmas without a loved one. No one should struggle alone.
A donation of £10 could cover the costs of a one hour call to our Free Bereavement Helpline, keeping this vital lifeline free and accessible to those struggling to cope with their grief. No matter the amount you give, your support will make a big difference and offer hope this Christmas.