How to survive Christmas when you're battling depression or anxiety

 Photo: iStock

It's a week before Christmas. Everyone has been asking me when I'll take my baby to get his first Santa photo, and I'm torn between wanting his first Christmas to be special (even though I know he won't remember it) and simply collapsing into my own exhaustion. I choose the Good Mother option and buckle my son into his pram. He grins up at me, not yet 5 months old, toothless and oblivious.

Inside the shopping centre, everywhere I look is an assault on my senses. Tinsel seems to glare at me from the escalators, garish and oddly menacing. Christmas music thumps in my ears. People push past, bumping my pram and offering grunts of apology.

Overwhelmed, I make it to the bathrooms where I burst into tears. The drawn face in the mirror looks like a stranger. It's all too much and under the harsh white lights in the parents' toilets, carols blaring, I let go of what seems like days worth of sobs. I look at my sleeping baby, smiling from inside his dreams and stand to leave. My heart is thudding; I have no Santa photo and no presents crossed off my to-do list. I feel like a complete and utter failure.

It's been four years since that day. I look back now at that fragile version of myself, her pale skin and dead eyes, and I want to hug her and tell her that it's okay to ask for help. That she shouldn't be trying to cope all on her own. And that life will get better.

Oh how I struggled though that first Christmas. I dragged my tired, aching heart through a noisy world in party mode. The cruel juxtaposition of blinking lights, presents and festivities with the empty shell I was living in, was excruciating - all the sadness I'd been feeling for weeks suddenly amplified in that pre-Christmas rush.

Not long afterwards, no longer able to remain in denial, I was diagnosed with psychotic depression. It's little wonder the stress and anxiety of the Christmas period, something we're all familiar with, was just too much for me that year. 

With the benefit of hindsight, there are so many things I'd do differently, so much I wish I'd known. If you're struggling through postnatal depression or anxiety this Christmas, here are a few tips that might make life just that little bit easier.

1. Don't be afraid to say no

When you're not feeling like yourself, Christmas function after Christmas function can be exhausting both physically and emotionally, especially if you feel you need to put on a "happy face". While it's important not to isolate yourself completely, don't try to please everyone either. You just can't, and you'll burn yourself out trying.

Be selective about what you go to and what you opt out of. The people who matter will understand.

2. Be assertive about your needs and your baby's needs

An influx of relatives eager to cuddle and pass around a new baby is stressful even when you're not suffering from depression. I know from experience that it's not much fun being shut in a darkened room trying to calm an over-stimulated baby while everyone else eats Christmas lunch.

Be firm about maintaining the routine you've got in place for your little one. If you need a rest too, make like your grandfather and disappear for an afternoon nap. And feel free to ignore the unsolicited parenting advice from your husband's second cousin's wife.

3. Have a back up support plan in place

If your GP or counsellor/psychologist/psychiatrist is away over the Christmas period, make sure you have a plan to help you get through this time. Lifeline (13 11 14) remains staffed 24/7 over the break. The Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA) Helpline (1300 726 306) closes on Christmas Eve but reopens on 29 December. The Pregnancy Birth and Baby Helpline can be accessed on 1800 882 436.

Please don't suffer in silence if you find yourself struggling while your usual supports are on leave.

4. Ask for help where needed, and accept it when it's offered

If you're lucky enough to have your partner around over the Christmas period, or even visiting relatives, try to carve out some time for yourself. An hour here and there can be completely rejuvenating and take the pressure off, even momentarily. Take advantage of any extra hands on deck.

5. Try to keep a routine going

It can be easy to get lost in the lazier rhythm of the holidays, to drink too much alcohol, eat poorly, stop exercising and stay up later than usual, all of which can have an impact on your mood. Getting adequate sleep, good nutrition and regular exercise are all crucial elements of a good treatment and recovery plan.

Try to be mindful of these things, and prioritise them where you can, over the Christmas break.

6. Keep things in perspective

When you strip away the endless functions, the chaos of shopping centres, and the inevitable family tension, and accept that Christmas will never be "perfect", spending time with loved ones, the people who love you unconditionally, can be so affirming when you're depressed. And a beautiful reminder of what's really important.