When it's no laughing matter

If the festive season is stressful, millennium angst and an extra-long break can only make it worse
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Are you enjoying your Christmas? Presents, mince pies, a happy holiday in the bosom of your family? Or are you wondering how you're going to keep your sanity long enough to greet the millennium? For while some of us dread little more than a spat over the television schedules and a hangover, for others it can be the cruellest time of year.

Are you enjoying your Christmas? Presents, mince pies, a happy holiday in the bosom of your family? Or are you wondering how you're going to keep your sanity long enough to greet the millennium? For while some of us dread little more than a spat over the television schedules and a hangover, for others it can be the cruellest time of year.

NOP research published earlier this month showed that millions of overworked mothers suffer serious stress levels each Christmas. Sixty-nine per cent of mothers admit to suffering "season stress" - characterised by mood swings, irritability, headaches and complete exhaustion - from arranging festivities with little or no family help. Christmas is as great a cause of stress as relationship problems and physical health worries, according to recent research conducted by mental health charity Mind. It is more stressful than sitting exams or being unemployed and the greatest cause of stress - money worries - is also greatest at this time of year, the findings showed.

It comes as no surprise, then, that organisations such as Mind that run helplines report a significant upswing in calls at this time of year; that incidents of domestic violence increase and that appointments made with marriage counsellors and doctors for advice on depression rise sharply every New Year.

The Samaritans, for example, reports that the number of calls received rises by at least eight per cent between Christmas and New Year's Eve - this year it is expecting to get at least 18,000 calls from distressed people on millennium night alone - and each year the number of calls received rises by between eight and 15 per cent during during the week between Christmas and New Year.

"A sense of enforced jollity permeates many people's feelings at this time of year," says consultant psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, who is involved with a support organisation for young men called the Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm). "It creates tensions and divisions between 'haves' and 'have nots'."

This pressure is heightened further by the contrast between our high expectations of what the Christmas holiday should be and the often harsh reality of what it actually turns out to be.

Christmas is a time to be with your family - but what if you don't have one? Or what if yours is fractured by divorce and must somehow be melded together for the festivities? One in every eight children is growing up in a "reconstituted" family, according to research conducted for the Economic and Social Research Council, and a million children will celebrate multiple Christmases this year. What if you can't afford it? Or what if you're miserable at a time that cannot but throw your unhappiness into sharp relief?

A major contributing factor to depression and anxiety at this time of year is the whole hype that now surrounds Christmas. There are expectations that it has to be a happy time and if it isn't, you've failed, believes Susan Quilliam, agony aunt for FHM magazine. "As a result it is inevitable that these high expectations highlight the stresses people carry with them throughout the rest of the year," she says. Add to this the financial and emotional pressure of spending prolonged time with family members you may see only once a year and you can face what relationship counselling organisation Relate describes as "a battleground fuelled by alcohol and tiredness".

Finances, family, and alcohol are key factors likely to ignite strains and stresses in our relationships that can lie dormant throughout the rest of the year, Relate counsellor Denise Knowles explains. "We all tend to drink more than we do at other times of the year, which can make us morbid, angry and violent," she says. "At Christmas, the pressure to get things right still tends to fall on the shoulders of the mother, which is even harder if she's a working mum. This is why it can be an absolute melting pot of emotions leading to a New Year's Eve declaration that you're 'not going to let the same thing happen next year'. That's why so many people turn to us each January."

An awful lot of people are very lonely yet reluctant to admit it - especially young men, Quilliam adds: "Women are a lot better at making social links and are less likely to feel isolated at Christmas. After Christmas Day and Boxing Day, however, many people stay at home and withdraw." For the most vulnerable, an exaggerated sense of loneliness and isolation can lead to drinking excessively, increased aggression and even thoughts of suicide. With a two-week break this year, many people will effectively drop out of sight. "I tend to go to ground after Christmas Day with my folks," says Lionel, a 36-year-old (single) advertising executive admits. "I'll go back to my flat, turn the TV on and switch off the phone. My friends are all in couples, and often I feel asked out as an afterthought."

The added pressure of the advent of the new millennium can only make the usual problems more extreme. "Each New Year brings that sense of 'now is the time to wipe the slate clean'," Dr Sigman says. "It becomes a time to assess your life, what you have and have not achieved. But people more predisposed to depression or with lower self-esteem find it harder to cope. And they can hide behind the social permission granted to act out happiness in a traditional way - through drink, the ideal camouflage."

Barbara, a high-flying 34-year-old financier who hides her depression from most of her close friends, agrees. "You can be at a party and still feel totally isolated," she says. "Because you're drinking, you can pretend you're all right and because everyone else is, they don't notice anyway."

While a growing number of people now acknowledge the dangers Christmas can pose, it's still the hype that drives some of us to our wits' end. "It is down to each of us to take responsibility for the pressure we put ourselves under," she says. "This way we can be better prepared to deal with those pressures beyond our immediate control."

The Samaritans (tel: 0345 909090, e-mail: jo@samaritans.org).

Calm helpline (tel: 0800 58 58 58). Relate (tel: 01788 573241).

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