Managing Stress at Christmas
Written by Dr Mieke Garrett | The Stress and Anxiety Doctor
Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that some of the happiest and most joy-filled times in our lives can also be the most stressful. Christmas in particular can bring a multitude of unique stressors, often all at once, for people to have to deal with.
This can include challenges in dealing with a wide array of different personalities coming together, but can also mean old memories and unresolved issues arising; a sense of pressure for people to really enjoy this period of time and not “wreck” it; substantial financial worries; and competing demands and tasks and a pressure to complete them by the end of the year.
Given the nature of the occasion and the festivities in the air around them, people are also often grappling with the fact that they are personally struggling / depressed / lonely when everyone else appears to be happy and surrounded by loved ones (“appear” often being the operative word here). Christmas can also be a significant milestone if it is an occasion they are adjusting to celebrating without an important loved one in their lives anymore.
Given this, one of the suggestions I’d make is to remember that if you are not filled with complete joy, serenity, and happiness this festive season, that you are almost certainly not the only one feeling this way, despite what you may see on social media. It can be helpful to know you’re not alone or unusual if this is the case. If you are feeling alone or struggling, please know that there are people and organisations available who want to help and can bring people together, or provide support.
If you are someone who is feeling an enormous sense of pressure for Christmas to be a very happy or perfect occasion, it can also be useful to remember that it doesn’t have to be faultless. Think of one or two key priorities you have for the holiday period and focus on those. It might be one or two small moments of enjoyment, or time with a particular person. The rest of the chaos can co-exist around this without necessarily detracting from it.
A lot of stressors around this time can be completely out of our control, and recognising what we can and can’t do something about is important. Some tips for dealing with this include:
Plan in advance what key triggers you think might arise for you, and consider what things you could put in place to mitigate them. This might involve limiting how much time you are exposed to the people or events in question, or having a plan in place to take a short break in the middle to get some fresh air for five minutes. It could also entail making sure you have some support around you (or if not possible, some virtual support in the form of ‘coping statements’ or a phone call to someone), or something to look forward to afterwards. It can also involve simply reminding yourself that this is not going to last indefinitely and you just need to get through the next few hours / days.
You can also prepare for stressful times in advance by taking the things you can control off your plate as much as possible. For example, whilst some obligations might be important for you to meet, such as a family dinner, others might be negotiable and on reflection you may find a number of them are self imposed expectations – such as how much you cook or bring, how many presents you buy, or how long you stay. There might also be completely unrelated things that are adding to your stress levels that you could take off your plate to make room for the things that are harder to eliminate, such as day to day chores or tasks on your to do list that can be delayed or removed. It might initially seem like this is not an option, but on reflection, we can often find things that we don’t actually have to do but are rather choosing to do.
Often simply ensuring our key needs are met as far as possible can do wonders in balancing our mood and increasing our tolerance levels too – this includes obtaining adequate sleep, nutrition, light exercise, regulating alcohol use, and tending to physical ailments. Sometimes these are complex to address, but other times, it is a matter of consciously making them a priority, and seeking help with them as needed.
In summary, do what you can to solve the stressors within your control. For those things outside of your control, try to acknowledge as much as possible that they simply are what they are, and deal with them as best you can.
Our language can play an important role here too; for example, it can be useful to notice if you are engaging in wishful thinking such as “If only….” Or “They should do xyz…” or “It’s not fair that….” This often denotes a struggle with accepting that something is what it is and won’t change, and rather than producing any useful change, simply builds resentment and increases personal stress levels.
Our expectations can play an important role in our experiences too. If we expect things to go badly, we can often worry about that well in advance of the event actually happening, and ruminate on it long after it has finished. It’s important to acknowledge your thoughts and feelings, but if you notice that you are spending large amounts of time thinking about them over and over and feeling progressively worse, then sometimes putting a limit on this is important. This doesn’t mean not thinking about it at all; it simply means taking a break from indulging in and deepening that train of thought.
Often when we have certain expectations we go into the situation and inadvertently focus on evidence that confirms those expectations too. And whilst that might not be entirely inaccurate, it sometimes misses the rest of the picture, or is simply unhelpful and counterproductive. One approach is to make a concerted effort to also notice pieces of information that disconfirm your expectations, such as a family member doing or saying something nice that you might not ordinarily have noticed or focused on.
Or, you might move off the topic concerned all together and instead focus on sharing pleasant memories together and connecting over common ground rather than fighting over differences.
Communication skills can also be extremely valuable in situations where a lot of different personalities are coming together. There is a lot of information available on the topic of optimal assertive communication, but some key tips include:
If you notice yourself feeling strong emotions, then stop, pause, and take a breath before reacting. Often if we give ourselves a few minutes to cool down first, we handle the situation completely differently than if we respond in the heat of the moment. This can really help avoid the situation spiralling into something much more difficult to manage.
Remember that what you heard the other person say might not always be what they said or what they intended – it can help to check the facts before assuming anything.
Similarly, when you want to communicate a point to someone else; make a request; or say no to something, it is useful to stick to the facts as much as you can here too, and avoid statements that seem blaming. Rather than saying “you never help with the dishes” for example, a more factual statement might be “I haven’t had any volunteers to help me with the dishes yet tonight; would you please be able to spare half an hour and wash them with me?”
Keeping to the present rather than bringing up old issues can also be important if you want to keep things amicable.
Validation is a really useful skill. This essentially means really listening to what the other person is saying, and acknowledging their feelings and/or perspective. You don’t necessarily have to agree with them, or do anything special, but you can make them feel heard. This often diffuses situations and opens conversations up to be much more productive. For example, rather than saying “that’s ridiculous; I don’t understand how you could possibly feel that way”, you might say “I can see that has really upset you”.
Finally, be prepared to compromise and negotiate. In advance of a conversation, consider what one or two things you really want to get out of the exchange, how important they are to you, and how you might best achieve them, particularly if you want to keep relationships intact. Following that, be prepared to be flexible on the rest, and consider how you might be able to properly listen to the other persons needs and wishes and support those too.