Christmas is upon us, a day known for merriment, family, laughter and food. It marks a special occasion not only for religion but for bringing a society together, where our charitable inclinations increase and acts of kindness are abundant. However, behind all this, there is a hidden world, where the idea of Christmas can represent an occasion of fear, anxiety and ambivalence. For those with autism, the lead up to Christmas can be a bizarre concept; for not everyday is Christmas so why are we decorating, advertising and exciting ourselves? For those with social anxiety, the idea of a room full of people, shops swarmed with the last minute purchasers can initiate the physical and emotional feelings of panic. Depression has leached the enjoyment out of life, and that doesn’t change for this one day out of 365. Christmas may evoke feelings and memories of pain, loss or abuse, everyone has an individual story to tell and it cannot be assumed that this festive season is jolly for all.
The intense focus on food is particularly challenging for one with an eating disorder, the fear of family members piling calories onto your plate, adding up to what is no longer a serving of nourishment or pleasure, but a numerical, quantitative pile of anxiety. Eager family members laughing around the table, looking expectantly for satisfied faces and yet the disordered response is a tentative one, avoiding complimenting the food due to an infestation of guilt that one could simply allow or accept that they can enjoy this nutritional necessity. The whole day becomes a nightmare of thoughts- resulting in tears, binges, purges, restrictions, anxiety and self-doubt, to a point that the very acceptance of presents becomes a guilt-driven activity. After the mechanical action of eating, the anxiety doesn’t dampen easily, the day will hold fears of having eaten too much, gaining weight, continuing to eat uncontrollably and results in a day lost in a world of clouded vision, an unintentional, self-centred bubble of worry and rumination.
Even if someone is struggling, people can be helped to find enjoyment from Christmas. If you have a loved one who is struggling in any way with this holiday- talk to them before the day. Put a plan in place. Whether it be discussing the meal with them, choosing certain foods, firming a safe place they can go if it’s overwhelming and reassuring them that it’s ok to need to ‘escape’ the family laughter and loud jokes. Make sure that person knows who they can talk to on the day, make sure they feel safe, that they know they are cared for and that even if they just show their face for a short while, they deserve to enjoy Christmas. Whatever an individual likes about Christmas, get them to focus on that and even if it’s just for a moment. Christmas holds some universal enjoyment, and please remember if someone is withdrawn at Christmas time due to mental illness, it is never their fault.