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A Season of Ambivalence

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

‘Christmas isn't a season. It's a feeling’

Edna Ferber

As we move into this period of the year, for many it is dominated by festivities and celebrations. There are signs all around that Christmas is creeping and for some seeping into our lives.

Across the globe there are nations and religions that embrace Christmas, a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and for spiritual reflection. Likewise, there are nations and religions who do not recognise or celebrate Christmas because it is not a holy day and holds no significance.

Finding meaning at this time of year can be full of ambivalence. As much as it can be a time for cheer, happiness, and rituals, it can also be marred by unhappiness, grief, and loss, with family relationships in crisis.

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year released by Andy Williams tells ‘everyone to be of good cheer’, but it can cripple individuals. Mental health can deteriorate as people plunge into the depths of despair. In 2019, a survey from YouGov UK revealed that there is an increase in:

  • Depression: affecting 25% of people

  • Loneliness: affecting 25% of people

  • Anxiety: affecting 30% of people

  • Stress: affecting 20% of people

Practically, Christmas can be a time of financial burden often ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ as the extra costs weigh heavy impacting routines and causing sleep problems. High expectations are often not met leaving the individual feeling disappointed.

Yet, Neuroscience suggests that there is an emotion behind a ‘Christmas Cheer’. A study run by the University of Denmark in 2015 using functioning magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) found that there was an increase in a network of brain regions that lit up when shown Christmas themed images, in comparison to, no activation in the brain regions when non-Christmas themes images were shown. Whilst not conclusive, it may be that Christmas cheer is an emotion that activates regions of the brain relating to individual memories and spirituality.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, it is a season that is dysregulating for most people. Senses are overloaded with stimuli in varying disguises. Our window of tolerance is pushed to the limit, fluctuating dramatically between states of hyperarousal and hypoarousal. Often a dance happens as we manoeuvre ourselves between the excitement that builds from October onwards, reaching a crescendo when the new year begins, versus the dance of misery and avoidance.

As therapists it is important to recognise that we too have our own personal values which are led by our experiences, associations, and memories. Like clients, we can find this time of year challenging and experience ‘Christmas Blues’. If this is you, be kind to yourself and ask for help as good emotional and mental health are essential if we are to continue to serve clients.

Reminding ourselves that ‘almost everything will unplug again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you’ (Anne Lamott), this season is not necessarily about celebration rather about maintaining connections, as it is not ‘how much we give, but how much love we put into giving’ (Mother Theresa).

(Authors: Karen O’Neill and Tara McDonald)

Published and Copyrighted by PIP Solutions: 20th December 2022

Reference List

Houhaard, A., Lindberg, U., , N. Arngrim, N., Larsson, H.B., Olesen, J., Amin, F.M., Ashina, M., B. T. Haddock, B.T. (2015) ‘Evidence of a Christmas spirit network in the brain: functional MRI study’. BMJ, 351, December

How does Christmas Impact people’s mental health? Available:

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