Discussions in my therapy room have frequently turned to stress and Christmas lately. One client told me he felt panicky when he watched adverts about Christmas and felt instant pressure about how much money he felt he should be spending on his children. Currently out of work due to having some significant mental health challenges he felt particularly guilty about not being able to provide for his family at the moment. I felt sad for him and it also got me reflecting a bit on how pressured friends and I have also talked about feeling at times in relation to creating the perfect family Christmas...
Subsequently a quick skip around Google reveals that the search "stress and Christmas" produces many hits. The National Health Service (NHS) has a section on their choices website entitled "Keep calm at Christmas: how to have a stress free Christmas" Even the NHS has a page devoted to it?! Wow. As a psychologist with an awareness of how major seemingly positive life events (like Christmas) can prompt stress, even I was surprised at how much has been written on this topic. Why can this time of year be so stressful then, especially it seems for family relations?! What can we learn from the wealth of information out there academic and otherwise, to help us survive?
Here's my quick psychologist's guide to surviving Christmas:
1. Drop the pressure to be perfect. Remember perfectionism doesn't pay (see link to my website below for a more in depth look at the hazards of perfectionism) No one can do everything right and make everyone else feels fantastic all the time, even on Christmas Day. Sure, be a good host and think of some things that will make people feel a bit special if you have guests in your home, but not at the expense of your own energy and enjoyment. Rope in extra help for cooking, don't be afraid of ready-to-cook food and don't panic if you have forgotten the cranberry sauce. Oh and if you want to stay in your pyjamas all day then do it.
2. I am concerned about materialism. Don't get me wrong, I also like a bit of shopping, sometimes even a lot of shopping, but I know it doesn't really feed my soul long term. The Western world is increasingly focused on what we buy vs. what we do and how we spend our time. Studies in this area have shown that spending money on a desired item gives only a short term increase in satisfaction meanwhile the boost to health and well being that comes from focused time sharing activities with others is greater. So the buzz of buying something nice may last a little while but the effects of creating memories with people we care about through focused time together or traditions are what stay with us and give us longer satisfaction. When you look back on your Christmases from the past can you honestly say you remember all of the lovely gifts you may have received or do you think about who was there and what you did together? Come up with a tradition you want to keep going or pass down in your family over time and do that. Save all your Christmas cash and organise a weekend away with your friends or a special family day out. A psychiatrist I used to work with made an annual Christmas donation to charity and made beautiful chocolate truffles to share with her friends and family instead of buying expensive gifts. I admired her for doing this.
3. Space out your social events. Do you have to cram in seeing everyone on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day alone? There are 12 days of Christmas after all so spacing out obligations is OK; you can have more than one special get together.
4. Be mindful. This means pay attention in a full, whole- hearted way to whatever you are doing. This gives distance from whatever stressful noise is happening in your head. Instead of wolfing down a handful of chocolates, take one and really savour it. Focus on the taste as it melts in your mouth. Try to enjoy the sensations. Really focus on the kids as they open their gifts, watch their reactions (not from behind your phone!); listen to what they say, enjoy the noise all that wrapping paper makes. Immerse yourself in what is going on around you and try to let other thoughts and intrusions like "I have to get dinner started"; "I wonder if they really like that present?" or "did I record that film for everyone later?" pass through your mind. If you become aware of stress hanging over you instead of taking it personally imagine stress as a black cloud in the sky that will drift past. Just let it go. You will feel happier.
5. There is apparently always a queue of people in London volunteering to work in kitchens for homeless people on Christmas Day. This may seem a little cliched to some but there is something good about focusing on others' needs and being compassionate that can really enhance your own personal well being too. There are loads of great charitable causes that are more visible around Christmas: filling an old shoe box full of treats for children in need is one thing many hospitals organise locally. The Salvation Army have some great idea about making a contribution to people in need and how to do this. Spreading some love and hope at this time of year can be especially poignant to people who feel most isolated in society. Being kind and compassionate to others can boost your immunity and overall well being at the same time as doing the same for someone else; what a great gift to you and to them.
6. Remember the main lesson that psychology has taught us since it's been around: it's how you react to the situations you are in that counts. Try to focus on the positive aspects of the holiday season and minimise your focus on the negative. Take time out from stressful family/ friend dynamics if you need.
I am hoping that the client that kicked off this whole train of thought has also gone away after our discussions and thought things through. I wonder if they bought that Christmas plate from the pound shop that we talked about? The plan is to put some snacks out on it for Santa with his young children on Christmas Eve instead of putting too much debt onto the family credit card to buy expensive things. Will I be sitting around in my pyjamas all though Christmas Day this year mindfully eating a mince pie or two or desperately sautéing brussel sprouts a la Jamie Oliver? Not sure. But I am going to keep reading through this survival guide and at least give some of these ideas a good try!
Visit my other blog space at www.psychinthecity.co.uk for more content and that article about perfectionism mentioned earlier.