I’m dreaming of a calm Christmas
Great expectations of yourself, those close to you and of Christmas itself can interplay to create a cocktail of detrimental levels of stress
Pace the festive season so that you do not fall into the Christmas pud exhausted
While ‘tis the season to be jolly for many, others creak under the pressure of Yuletide. Stress refers to the perception of the situation and the physiological response to it. When the demands of our environment exceed our resources, the battery gets run down fast. Great expectations of yourself, those close to you and of Christmas itself all interplay to create a cocktail of detrimental levels of stress. We feel we should be having a wonderful time and that others should be happy, chip in and go by our Christmas “rules”.
There may be internal messages to be joyful, busy and giving, with many people doing extra at work, in the home and socially. As modern-day parents we tend to have optimistic images of smiling faces and a magical Christmas as homes becomes transformed into Santa’s grotto and Santa “experiences” in enchanted forests get booked out in October.
Change can be challenging when our batteries are low and we experience end-of-year fatigue. Changes infiltrate our senses with Christmas music playing, visual displays in shops, adverts, decorated homes, the trees going up and Christmas aromas. The return of exiles and reunions bring more people into the social loop for many.
Thought processes tend to create images and to-do lists as adrenaline starts to rise, with our heads filled with “what ifs” and overfilled calenders. With a stressful mind, amplification of the amount of work occurs.
Social media intensifies festive stress, with images of happy families in red, kissing couples, the accumulation of material things and the depiction of high octane socialising.
Findings by the UK organisation Mind revealed nearly 60 per cent of those with mental health problems experienced panic attacks, 45 per cent felt suicidal and 41 per cent got into debt. Some 81 per cent reported that they found Christmas stressful.
As a counselling psychologist I see people coming to me with symptoms magnified this time of year, loss intensified, and expectations and familial roles playing a part.
It is often left to one person to “create” Christmas. Factors that negatively impact on many people include disruption to routine, financial strain and debt, overeating and alcohol and recreational drug use.
The often overlooked side of the festivities include the elderly, the mentally ill, the lonely, the homeless and those spending Christmas in a mainstream or psychiatric hospital. There are some facing death, others bereaved or experiencing a relationship break-up.
The redness and sparkle of Christmas is dulled for them. Our westernised version of Christmas is passed by for those in third world countries or following catastrophic events such as the recent wildfires in California or the tsunami in Indonesia. This does not mean we should feel guilty or can’t enjoy the season, but rather to spare a thought and do what we can for those in need.
So what simple steps can we take to buffer against the festive stress?
1. Take the time to write out your “need-to-do” lists and “nice-to-do” lists. Reach out and ask for help. If you are busy working or just overloaded there may be a friend or family member who can help you with your Christmas shopping and preparation.
2. Try not to pack up your diary. Instead of saying “yes” let others know that you will get back to them. Pace it to prevent falling into the Christmas pud exhausted.
3. Watch perfectionism as this elevates stress levels. Of course you want it all to be special, but keep it in perspective and know your limits. Reflect on what the true meaning of Christmas is for you. At the age of 80-plus what will have mattered most?
4. Keep moving. Exercise boosts your feel-good neurotransmitters. Start your day with a few stretches, have a swim or walk. And on the other hand, know how to pause, read a book, meditate or rest. Take breath breaks throughout your day.
5. Get outside. Monitor the amount of light you are exposed to outdoors. We tend to hibernate this time of the year. Sunlight stimulates the production of serotonin and alleviates SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Check if you have Vitamin D deficiency.
6. Engage in laughter to reduce stress hormones. What and who makes you laugh and have regular dosage.
7. Limit screen usage as it triggers your fight or flight response.
8. Help others by volunteering or get involved with community activities.
9. Gifting makes you feel good. While it is the thought that counts, get presents that you know the person will like and use. Find out what kid recipients would like and include gift receipts. Make your list, watch out for special offers and shop early in the day or locally. If you are genuinely on a tight budget (not a scrooge budget) be creative with presents, recycle unused gifts or offer to do chores or cook a special lunch or dinner.
10. If you are the entertainer, delegate. You could ask guests to bring starters, desserts or vegetables. If you are a guest give your host space by chatting with the other guests or playing with children. Ask what help is needed, and suggest bringing specifics.
11. Smooth relations. Know what danger zones may arise. Limit time with “tricky” people. Engage guests in activities or a movie, and avoid hot spot topics of conversation. Or get out for a walk.
12. Listen to the “permission-to-guzzle” inner voice monitor. Keep a mental or written food, drink and sleep diary. Eat and drink in moderation. If you overindulge, exercise it off and try again.
13. If this is a difficult time of the year for you, think about taking a day trip, going abroad, going to a hotel or doing something different. Don’t force yourself to be jolly. Reach out for help and be honest about how you are feeling.
If in crisis doctors on call, emergency departments, the Samaritans, an Garda Síochána, Women’s Aid, Childline and many others are there willing to help you.