Looking forward to Christmas?
Happy thoughts of turkey, Christmas pudding and carollers, joyful children, opening presents by the glow of an open fire? Or already feeling overwhelmed with a maxed out credit card and a to do list that will see you though till Christmas 2014?
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Christmas can be a wonderful, magical time, but it can also be stressful and exhausting.
It’s normal to experience increased stress at Christmas. Loss of normal routines, the pressures of family get-togethers, lack of exercise, as well as overspending, over-drinking and overeating can have a radical impact on your emotional and physical wellbeing. We set such store by the need to produce a perfect Christmas that we get tied up in increasingly unrealistic goals and expectations. Family and marital relationships are put under the spotlight and old resentments can re-emerge, particularly under the disinhibiting influence of alcohol. Maybe it’s not surprising that January is one of the busiest times for relationship counsellors and divorce lawyers.
7 effective ways to managing stress over the Christmas holidays
1. What are your priorities?
What’s the most important aspect of Christmas for you; is it just having all your family around? Producing a cordon bleu standard dinner? Having the best decorated house on the street?
Decide what makes a good Christmas for you and focus on that. Decide on the central tasks that are important for your goal, and then break them down into a time frame. It may be helpful to write out a list to give yourself a clear idea of what you’d like to get done in the days and weeks before Christmas day. But beware of becoming too attached to your list, it’s a guide rather than a diktat. A few missed things are unlikely to make a significant difference to the overall feel of your Christmas. Which brings me to the next point…
2. Be realistic
We’ve all had the experience of having a little token present greeted with pleasure beyond its cost because it was meaningful. We’ve also probably had occasions when we spent a fortune we couldn’t afford on a present that’s discarded and forgotten within hours.
Overspending creates high levels of Christmas gifts anxiety that you’ll carry with you into the New Year, so set a reasonable budget and stick to it. Research shows that a focus on the family and spiritual aspects of Christmas is associated with greater wellbeing and happiness than a concern about giving and receiving expensive gifts. And with realism comes…
3. Avoid perfectionism
Glossy magazines and sumptuous TV adverts, selling everything from sparkly party dresses to the perfect centrepiece for your table, offer an impossible dream… a Christmas, where beautiful people waft around sipping Champagne and smiling warmly at each other as they accept their perfectly wrapped presents. The reality for most of us (or is it just me) is that little children get overexcited and run around screaming and stroppy teenagers spend half the day in their room playing on their new iPad before telling you that the turkey’s dry and that actually they would prefer completely different parents. Your sisters have an argument about something that happened 15 years ago, and Uncle Paul drinks too much and sings rugby songs. Your dream of a perfect Christmas is in shatters and you feel angry and guilty. Keep in mind that those pictures in the magazine are not real and that we are the same people on Christmas day as we are the rest of the year, however much you might want it otherwise.
4. Ask for help
Feeling martyred is not good for you and not good for your family, breeding resentment and bad feeling. Delegating is a business-y kind of word and you may feel you’ve tried and failed to get your family onside with the Christmas tasks in the past, but it’s important to recognise that there are different ways of asking for help.
Passive requests (like “I know you’re busy so I guess I’ll just go buy the tree”) and unspoken assumptions (how often have you thought “If they cared about me they’d know I need help”?) are unlikely to get you the support you need. Asking assertively means being clear and open in your requests: “On Wednesday afternoon I’d like us both to go choose a tree” or “Let’s go through the list of things that need to be done and decide who’s going to do what”.
Research shows that we are born with an inherent desire to be helpful; it may seem like your family’s forgotten this, but there’s no better time than Christmas to start working together!
5. Be grateful
We know that people, who actively think about the things they are grateful for in their life are more optimistic and content. But Christmas can be a minefield for lack of gratitude and dissatisfaction, most particularly if you have gone to great lengths to create a ‘perfect’ day (see above!). In any normal family some people won’t like the present you bought them or they’ll sit around all day expecting you to keep up a running supply of mince pies and tea.
The more effort you have put into Christmas, the more likely it is that the amount of gratitude you get back won’t match up. You’re left feeling put upon and cross. I’m not saying put in no effort, but rather switch it around so you remain conscious of the things that make your life worthwhile. Say thanks that you have kids who can be grumpy and family who can argue, that you have enough food and some nice things.
6. Look after your physical wellbeing
Physical activity is a proven way to increase stress tolerance, while overeating and drinking too much definitely have the opposite effect. Keep some structure in your day by sticking to regular meals (not too much grazing), going for a walk or taking other exercise and getting plenty of sleep.
Research suggests that the increase in heart attacks in the winter could be due more to the Christmas stressors and holiday anxiety than cold weather, with emotional stress, overindulgence and putting off seeking medical help being some of the primary causes.
And above all keep breathing…
7. Relaxed breathing
As we rush about chasing our list and feeling the pressure of time, stress can build up without us being aware until we find ourselves becoming shouty, anxious or tearful. Create space each day for a little time just to be. Take a few minutes to sit down and focus on the movement of your breath in an out; let thoughts come and go as they will, but just for that time let the thoughts pass by without feeling the need to act on them. Practising mindful breathing a few times each day offers a little emotional distance from negative thoughts and eases difficult feelings.
And finally… remember, the best present you can give your family this Christmas is for you to feel calm, happy and content.
If it’s all too much: For some people at Christmas, life events such as bereavement, ill health, divorce or unemployment or unhappy memories or associations, can make them vulnerable to becoming significantly depressed or anxious at this time of year. If for you the general stress of Christmas tips over into more pronounced feelings of distress or feeling unable to cope, please do speak to your doctor or psychologist.
(image credit: ameslab, data3.whicdn, i.telegraph, 2.bp.blogspot, wallchips)