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As we prepare for the festive season, how can we manage our mixed emotions?

Posted 29 Nov 2021

As the festive season approaches many of us will be experiencing a mix of emotions. It comes as a welcome break after another year when Covid-19 has been an ever-present threat. To be sure, Western Australians have largely escaped the frightening outbreaks, emergency restrictions and lengthy lockdowns experienced in other states, but even in WA this has been a year when our mental and emotional wellbeing has been tested.

Even as we look forward to new freedoms, such as the opportunity to travel, we also know we may soon have to live with community transmission of COVID-19 and all that goes with it. The threat of new strains, such as Omicron, also adds to the pressure. For communities where vaccination rates remain stubbornly low that prospect means anxiety is higher than ever.

But for many of us anxiety has been eclipsed by different emotions – sadness and frustration. Sadness from the long months we have been separated from loved ones overseas or interstate, sadness at the missed special events, celebrations and milestones, and sadness at the loss of someone dear to us while we were far away.

And as we see others enjoying freedoms we can’t share – especially the freedom to travel – some of us are feeling frustrated. After so many months contained within our state borders, we are restless and perhaps even resentful. After living through a time of prolonged disruption to almost every part of our lives, many people are simply exhausted.

During the festive season it’s worth taking some time to reflect on our mental health and how we can give our mental wellbeing a much-needed boost.

Professor Peter McEvoy is a member of our Expert Advisory Panel and is senior clinical psychologist at the Centre for Clinical Interventions and a teaching and research academic at the School of Psychology, Curtin University. Professor McEvoy says that sadness is a normal response to loss in our lives, such as lost time with loved ones, missed opportunities, and loneliness, but that we aren’t helpless when it comes to the way we experience these emotions.

“Events may be outside our control, but the way we respond to them will influence how much of an impact they have on our mental wellbeing, including how intense and prolonged our feelings of anxiety and sadness will be” he says.

“There are things we can do to help manage our emotions and help protect our mental health”.

Professor McEvoy suggests we should keep an eye on our expectations.

“If we can’t change the world, but insist on things being different, we can get stuck with intense negative thoughts and emotions. Instead, we can adjust our expectations. Rather than thinking “I should be able to travel overseas to see a loved one” try “I’d like to but understand that I can’t right now – this won’t be forever.”

He says rather than focusing on what we can’t do, to focus on what we can do right now to get our needs met as best as possible, even if it involves a compromise (e.g. video-calling rather than visiting a loved one).

Professor McEvoy says many of us underestimate our ability to deal with hard times and that the past can be a valuable teacher.

“Remember that you’ve felt anxious or dealt with challenges before – and you came through on the other side! How can you bring those strengths into the current moment?

“What things helped you, and what didn’t help? Getting some fresh air, talking to someone, watching a movie, playing an instrument, and so on. Use these to help you cope this time, just like you’ve coped with past challenges. Choose to avoid doing things that you’ve learnt tend to make the problem worse. Write down three things that help and three things that don’t and stick them on the fridge!”

Finally, Professor McEvoy says that the message of Act Belong Commit is an important guide during stressful times.

“Act Belong Commit can be expressed as ‘Do something … Do something with someone … Do something meaningful’. It prompts us to take the initiative in making simple positive steps that we know help protect and improve our mental health and wellbeing” Professor McEvoy says.

If you are struggling, support is available. Call a helpline or see your GP or make an appointment with your mental health professional.

Act Belong Commit acknowledges Peter McEvoy, Professor of Clinical Psychology from Curtin University’s School of Population Health, enAble Institute and the Centre for Clinical Interventions, who has collaborated with Mentally Healthy WA to bring you this article.

Professor McEvoy is also a member of Mentally Healthy WA’s Expert Advisory Panel.