In an ideal world, the festive season is ideally a time of joy, love, and family, but with the covid-19 pandemic turning our lives upside down, this jolly season; could be clouded with depression and anxiety.
By: Anele Siswana
The festive season takes place within the phase of advent, a period that marks the four Sundays and weeks before Christmas (or sometimes from the 1st December to Christmas Day!).
In an ideal world, people regard this season as one that is filled with love, warmth, and happiness. However, often it is coupled with stress, exhaustion, and anxiety, and end year fatigue. And with the second wave of Covid-19 sweeping through the country, resulting in further social distancing rules, this festive season may be the most unusual holiday season in history.
For those who anticipated a season of love, joy, gifts, laughs, dancing, and endless parties, this may be nothing but a gloomy season that brings loneliness, sadness, depression, and anxiety. Many can’t travel to their families due to lack of funds, caused by job losses, pay cuts, and business shutdowns during level 5 – 3 lockdown, and others may have lost loved ones to covid-19 or may catch the virus.
What is anxiety?
As a clinical psychologist, to make it simple, I describe anxiety as excessive worrying about a particular thing. You worry about everything to the extent that it cripples your ability to manage that worry. I use the word excessive because this is worrying that is overwhelming, to the degree of affecting one’s ability to function normally. We call this a degree of impairment that affects one’s ability to engage with different activities.
This impact could manifest at school, work, your normal daily activities, and your inability to cope with day-to-day life. The main thing here is a worry that affects functioning in different domains of daily life. There are often triggers that cause and trigger this kind of anxiety, particularly to where we are now; people struggling to cope with the resurgence in covid-19 infections and deaths.
What is the difference between depression and anxiety?
My simplest explanation of depression: it is a state of deep-seated sadness, coupled with being tearful, feeling down as if one would never come out of that. It’s a state of darkness where everything seems difficult and emotionally draining. These can be some of the following symptoms: crying or tearfulness, locking oneself in a dark room or bedroom, deliberate self-isolation, lack of appetite or eating more than usual, forgetfulness, basically memory problems, lack of attention and concentration, and lack of drive and motivation, decreased libido, lack of interest to engage with normal activities.
The truth about the festive season
The festive season is considered a time for “doing the things that make the pots” – a time where many splurge, especially those who have received their 13th Cheque or performance bonuses at work.
However, this year, many are struggling financially, or have gone from affording the fine pleasures of life – dining, spending on family and friends, and traveling – to struggling to make ends meet. While others are struggling with the financial bump that came with the covid-19.
So when we flip the coin, some of us may be struggling to afford the luxury of over-spending, traveling, and over-indulging – and this year, the numbers are far greater than in other years.
Amid this excitement, we often forget about those on the other end of the spectrum, the people struggling against poverty, unemployment, and social injustice, which often leads to anxiety and depression during this season.
Other factors may result in anxiety and depression during this season of love.
Here are a few:
Black Tax/Unreasonable demands
South Africa has some of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in the world.
We live in times of minimum wage, where living expenses out-weigh income. This has potential implications for those who work and have an income, like expectations to contribute financially.
A number of people can hardly draw a line between black tax and generosity, which is why many black people find themselves in situations that necessitate them to over-spend on family and friends (buy food, drinks, clothes, etc.) during the festive season.
Black tax is an infamous term coined for people of colour who are required to share their salary with their family, and sometimes their extended family.
Black tax may also be why many find themselves crippled by unrealistic expectations from their families, friends, and community members during the festive season, especially if they are deemed to be successful.
This is a popular trend, which is mostly aimed at Amagoduka (a Xhosa term) – for those who predominantly come home in December, and may have moved to big cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban in search of greener pastures. And sometimes being in these places does not suggest all the romantic imaginations and expectations that our families have.
The narrative is that if you have moved to a big city, then you can automatically afford to splurge. As a result, some may enter into debt while trying to please family and friends or opt not to travel home during the festive season.
I think this pandemic may force us to change the narrative and appreciate more the simple pleasures in life, health, the gift of life, loved ones, and the gift of presence and time more than financial rewards and luxurious gifts. This can be the season that brings us even closer, as we ride through this terrain of great uncertainty.
Mental health during this festive season
Many of us are uncertain about whether or not this Covid-19 situation will worsen. We are not sure when this will end. We are excessively worried about being exposed to the virus, the worst case being hospitalised or infecting loved ones due to failing to adhere to the social distancing regulations.
The “new normal” is real, and it requires us to come up with a unique way of understanding the festive season. This means that we need to find a new way of making sense of the new normal. It requires us to explore new ways of having fun, to think differently about using ‘our spaces’ for entertainment.
This change is bound to come with mental health problems, especially because it forces us to throw away our old routines and adopt new ones, which may include self-isolation and interacting with loved ones via Zoom, Teams, Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Skype, etc.
There is also the sad reality that some people may have lost loved ones during the year – a parent, relative, child, friend, or partner – and this may be their first time spending the festive season without their presence. For them, this can be a season filled with grief, sadness, and loneliness.
I hope that those who find themselves in this space find comfort and healing in seeking support from family and friends during this trying time.
This season, some will brave it and travel long distances to be with their families and friends, despite being warned to only travel for important reasons, and this is a time that is infamous for road accidents.
This means that death and bereavement may become a dark cloud for many families during this season. Instead of being merry, many may spend their time preparing for funerals, burying loved ones, and grappling with their loss or nursing loved ones back to health.
I encourage families and friends to remember that even amid the darkness and sadness; they can commemorate and celebrate the lives of the loved ones that are no more or unable to attend family gatherings. Make that call; send that text and set up an appointment for that video call. We must learn to be present for one another because tomorrow is not promised.
Seeking help or support for depression and anxiety
In my treatment plan, I always include family intervention strategies. For me, family intervention is one of the most powerful tools in an African context. Family serves as “home”; (a) space where one belongs, an ideal space of safety, and where the first experience of healing takes place.
However, when it comes to a family that doesn’t understand mental health or how to help someone with depression, this can be a challenge. If someone has depression or other mental illnesses, you may feel helpless and wonder what to do. I often encourage and advise family members to take time to get an education – Google is your best friend – so they can learn how to offer support. Above all, families have to understand how to help a loved one get the resources to cope with their condition – depression or anxiety.
It’s also important to note that this is also a time where many beat themselves up for failing to achieve certain goals they had for the year, including New Year’s resolutions, which can leave them with a sense of uncertainty about the upcoming year.
Success is one of the things we strive for as individuals, and failure can be detrimental. Sometimes we have unreasonable expectations of ourselves and set unrealistic goals, which can trigger anxiety during this season. I always encourage people to rethink their expectations of themselves and others.
Your goals are targets, which should be achieved according to your plans and expectations – living life to please others can result in unbearable pressures that can set you up for failure.
My principle and attitude around success is to acknowledge that few people truly measure up to the “movie standard” of success, therefore, it’s important to shift our focus to all the great things we have achieved this year, even though they may appear to be small feats.
My hope is that we realise that even though this can be a dark season, we must try and be empathetic to those who may be suffering during this time.
May those families who are suffering from grief as a result of Covid related deaths, loneliness, depression or anxiety know that they are not alone. In the wise words of the spiritual master, Amit Ray, remember, “You are never alone. You are eternally connected with everyone.”
To seek professional help contact:
SADAG (The South African Depression and Anxiety Group) on 0800 567 567
24hr Emergency Helpline: 0800 12 13 14
SMS 31393 (and they will call you back)
Lifeline – National Counselling
0861 322 322 (24 hours/ 7 days a week)