• Christmas can bring all sorts of pressures and expectations that leave us feeling anything but merry

  • Psychotherapist Camilla Nicholls explores the themes of loneliness that she's seeing in her practice at this time of year

  • If you need support, we have therapists available here

It was mid-September when Christmas was first raised in my consulting room this year. Not long after the summer break. It felt as if the interaction with friends and families in what was supposedly a relaxed situation, the summer holidays, flicked a red alert switch in people about the next time they were destined to be together enjoying themselves. I’ve been talking about Christmas with clients ever since. 

Christmas is a challenging time of year for many. I believe there is a growing awareness about loneliness during the festive period, the sense of isolation some people feel when, come November, if they have a device of any kind, watch TV or travel on public transport the overwhelming message is its abnormal to spend time in anything less than a group of four cosily snuggled up on a sofa, in front of a fire or at a table groaning with immaculately cooked food or stripped down to your silky smalls dancing through safe night time streets or in relaxed bars with sexy, unharried bar staff.

If not part of a big group of merry folk, we are told it is a time to spoil the ‘special’ person in our lives. The air is thick with the idea of coupledom, and hoorah for those who are able to celebrate their love that way. However, the truth for many people is one of feeling left out and the perfectly normal state of being on your own, whether you want to be or not, is demonised, adding pressure to those who already feel depressed, anxious or in some way unacceptably different. 

All the lonely, ‘outsider’ feelings have come up in the consulting room, but this year it feels as if the greater anxiety prevailing is around the prospect of Christmas being an impossible time to keep everyone happy. If this is right, then maybe it was Covid that brought about the change? The government may have been reluctant to bring in a circuit breaker at the time, but what broke was the way in which many of us traditionally marked Christmas. There was certainly heartbreak about not being able to be with loved ones at Christmas during the pandemic, but I hear more about the freedom that Covid gave families to express their love for one another without the need to be confined in a shared space, with differing tolerances for sociability and food. 

This year, with pre-Covid Christmas patterns being re-formed, the anxieties about what our social responsibilities are deemed to be at this time are back with a vengeance. The therapist’s job is to understand and work with what the individual pressure is for each client, but perhaps the general message to those who fear being overwhelmed by Christmas is the same as it is for those who embrace it wholeheartedly, a recognition we are all unique. It is unnatural to believe we are all neatly fitting pieces in a cosy Christmas jigsaw. Much better to recognise our differences and try to come to terms with them before a rather ugly and distorted picture is created.  

I know whatever happens for my clients, the complex subject of Christmas will not end with the break and we will continue to discuss it well into the new year. 

Camilla Nicholls is a verified Welldoing psychotherapist in North London and online

Further reading

Why do I feel like a child again when I go home for Christmas?

Unwrapping Christmas calm: 5 ways to avoid overwhelm

Why do we tell lies at Christmas parties?

Should you give your therapist a Christmas gift?