5 mins

Weighing up the psychological toll of the ‘Christmas fantasy’

Let’s get real about the Christmas fantasy

We all know how it feels to escape into a fantasy in our minds every now and then, don’t we? And while it’s often enjoyable to find motivation or inspiration in dreams of a luxury holiday or landing a major promotion at work, fantasy-thinking can take its toll on our psychological health as well.

Every year the media machine and society at large peddle the ‘Christmas fantasy’, by filling the collective consciousness with images of happy families making each other’s dreams come true by participating in a bit of binge consumerism. In this article, we’re going to explore how the fantasy affects women in particular, who often find themselves at the centre of others’ expectations, and how these expectations can reveal hidden stresses and even depression.

How fantasy-thinking works, in a psychological sense

At its heart, this type of thinking creates a gap between what’s real and what’s imagined. Sometimes, people engage in this mental activity as a method of self-soothing during peaks of stress or anxiety. However, as with anything, too much of a good thing can be a problem. Psychologically, this phenomenon is also known as a form of avoidance. When people engage excessively in this type of thinking, it can lead to narcissistic personality disorder as just one example, and as noted in a study by George Eman Vaillant, people who heavily rely on fantasy thinking generally don’t have any close friends in the real world. While fantasy-thinking grows, the day-to-day reality of a person can rapidly deteriorate, thus broadening the gap between what’s real and imagined.

Christmas can highlight expectations around having children

At the clinic, many clients come to us in a state of depression because they aren’t able to have children. Both men and women who are infertile, and who want to have children, may at some point experience mild to severe depression about their inability to conceive. This depression can be as severe as the one that sometimes arises from the diagnosis of cancer, or after the recovery of a heart attack. The emotions experienced at this time can also be likened to what a person feels when grieving the loss of a loved one – only in this instance, a person is grieving the loss of what could be. Hence it could be said, the loss of what turned out to be a fantasy – and of course, the ‘Christmas fantasy’ could well be the trigger that sets off depression in such an individual.

It’s a time that can highlight you’re in the wrong relationship

Couples spend far more time with each other during the holidays. In many ways, this period is an ideal test of how you’ll gel with your partner long-term if you’re in a new relationship. There are often lots of engagements and parties to navigate together, plus there’s the added pressure of two families meeting. On top of that, there is unstructured time, where you truly get to experience how your partner lives naturally, when they’re not in their usual routine. All of the unique events and factors of this time sometimes lead people to realise they’re in a relationship with someone who won’t be right long term. And the heartbreak that comes from this realisation can sometimes be devastating.

Divorce and separations in long-term relationships also typically happen at this time. At the clinic, we offer therapy to individuals and/or couples who are keen to work through the relational patterns that underpin their issues. Not all couples need to split up to resolve their problems and it’s worth seeking therapy first, before seeking out lawyers.

How to set the right expectations with your loved ones, and enjoy this Christmas

When you take away the commercialism that surrounds Christmas, it really is a lovely time of year. Just being with loved ones and friends can be very recharging to the soul. And there are ways to make sure it goes well. Firstly, you usually know the people you’re going to spend time with very well. It’s highly likely you know what triggers and stresses them out, so plan ahead and plan around these things. And it’s likely you already know how they trigger you. Perhaps Aunty Jane is going to poke fun at you for not being married yet, or Uncle Joe is going to tell you how to run your business. You can visualise and prepare mentally in advance, working out ways to be yourself in such a way that honours the people around you as well.

And if you’re on your own this Christmas, it can be a truly restorative time, where you indulge in some deep relaxation and map out future goals around things you’d like to do in the year ahead. As Jen Kirkman notes, it can be a great time to make plans with yourself and perhaps go on an adventure you always dreamed of, but never had the time.

We’ve helped countless individuals and couples get through the many challenges presented by this time of year. If you would like to discuss how we can help, then please do contact us for a confidential chat.

Dr Elena Touroni

Dr Elena Touroni

19 December 2018

"Dr. Elena Touroni is a skilled and experienced Consultant Psychologist with a track record of delivering high-quality services for individuals with all common emotional difficulties and those with a diagnosis of personality disorder. She is experienced in service design and delivery, the management of multi-disciplinary teams, organisational consultancy, and development and delivery of both national and bespoke training to providers in the statutory and non-statutory sector."

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Dr Stacie Tay

Dr Stacie Tay attained her BSc (Hons) Psychology at the University of Nottingham and worked as a psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health, Singapore, before returning to the UK to complete her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the University College London.   

Dr Tay has worked in a variety of settings within the NHS for more than eight years, including primary and secondary care, specialist psychological services and forensic inpatient settings. She currently works as a Clinical Psychologist at the North East London Foundation Trust.  

She has extensive experience working with individuals and groups, providing evidence-based psychological therapies including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Interpersonal Psychotherapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and Mindfulness-based approaches as well as Schema-informed therapy.   

Dr Tay’s clinical experience involves working with people who present with a range of mild to severe mental health difficulties. This includes depression, anxiety (OCD, social anxiety, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, health anxiety, phobia-related disorders, PTSD), stress related issues, low self-esteem, complex trauma, interpersonal difficulties, grief and bereavement, and long-term health conditions.