For some, Christmas can be more stressful than moving house, getting married, becoming a parent, or getting divorced. Whether it is the shopping for the ideal gifts for the person who has everything, or the cooking of a perfect mammoth feast, or even the obligatory visits to relatives who are a bit ‘challenging’, people can both love and hate the festive season and it can be an exhausting time. Yet your experience of Christmas is what you make it. A little planning ahead and a positive mindset can lead to a stress-free, delightful and even rejuvenating festive season.
In the media, whilst shopping for seasonal events, we are bombarded by images and ideas about ‘the perfect Christmas’, yet such a thing doesn’t really exist. This ‘pressure’ can build unrealistic expectations, that can ultimately lead to Christmas stress and disappointment.
Unfortunately, we can subconsciously allow the demands of Christmas to weigh us down and create stress. A body under stress produces the stress hormone Cortisol (which helps in fight or flight situations). High levels of this hormone can inhibit brain function, slow metabolism, break down muscle and increase blood pressure.
Our neuroendocrine-immune system processes and structures from our central nervous system, hormonal systems and immune systems, and these are connected in complex relationships… Emotional and mental demands can cause stress hormones to increase, affecting our immune systems and our health, and leaving us less resilient or able to cope with the demands of the festive season. For some, stress at Christmas time can cause depression and anxiety. For others, they will ‘self-soothe’ with unhealthy coping strategies, such as too much food, too much alcohol, or even other substances.
However, just like any potentially stress-inducing event, it is possible to employ simply strategies to reduce the likelihood or impact of seasonal stress. For a good end to the festive season, plan for a good start and a helpful route through the festivities. Here are the 12 tips of Christmas, that can help you to reduce your festive stress levels…
1. Plan ahead
“There cannot be a stressful crisis next week. My schedule is already full.”
~ Henry Kissinger
Plan ahead, and make a thorough list of all that you need to do, the things you want to buy and of key timelines and events. After Christmas, review the list and update it ready for the next Christmas. Have realistic expectations, and keep your plans ‘SMART’ (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely). If there are certain tasks that can be completed early, then planning to get those out of the way, can allow some additional space for last minute demands on your time. Also, be intelligent in how you handle these tasks. For example, if Christmas card writing is a hassle, consider using an online card provider. Once you have input the recipient’s emails, you can re-send cards each year with minimal effort. Otherwise, pick a quiet night some time before Christmas and write out and address all the known cards you will need to send.
2. Shop smart
“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think”
~ Christopher Robin
If you hate the hustle and bustle of shops, then organise your Christmas present / gift list and go shopping online. You can schedule food and drink deliveries as well, meaning you can relax or get on with other tasks, instead of braving the bustle of busy food shops and some people engaging in ‘trolley rage’ and ‘fighting for parking spots’.
3. Pace yourself
“A day of worry is more exhausting than a week of work”
~ John Lubbock
Take time out each day to be calm. Listen to relaxing music, practice self-hypnosis or meditation, get a massage, or take a soothing bath. Eat as though you are planning for a major event, with healthy nutritious food (eat turkey, it contains tryptophan, which is used to make serotonin, a brain-calming chemical). On stressful days, it can be easier to eat little and often to better balance your energy and avoid peaks and dips. Also, keep hydrated, especially if you are having the odd glass of wine (or more). Even a small reduction in hydration can impair your thinking processes and add to any perceived level of stress. Another great aid to stress reduction is exercise.
Now you might think you are doing a lot of running around getting ready for the holidays. Yet, this can be inconsistent ‘active’ exercise. Sustained exercise can increase energy levels, boost your immune system, help you sleep better and be better able to cope with frustration. Also, mentioning sleep, sufficient sleep can avoid irritability, grumpiness and being short-tempered, and will help you feel more resilient and better able to cope with the demands placed upon you.
4. Avoid over-stimulation
“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it”
~ Lou Holtz
Acknowledge your feelings. If you are feeling over-pressured, then address it as early as possible, rather than letting the feelings build to an explosive point. Notice whether you are using coping strategies that ultimately may make things worse… For example; drinking a lot of coffee to keep you going when you are feeling tired. We know of the unhelpful effects of caffeine in the body, but also, caffeinated coffee stimulates cortisol, even if you are in a resting state – so lay off the stimulants and relax…
5. Balance demands
“Slow down and everything you are chasing will come around and catch you”
~ John DePaola
A vast array of sometimes conflicting demands can be placed upon you over the festive season. Be realistic as to what you can definitely achieve, what you are likely to be able to achieve, and what would be nice if you have the time or the resources (and when all the other demands have been met). Prioritise and review your priorities regularly. Make sure you prioritise yourself and time for relaxation, to ensure you have enough energy to actually ‘enjoy’ the holidays rather than ‘endure’ them. Ensure you have sufficient ‘you’ time, to relax in the way that best suits you. This may be playing a game or watching something funny, watching a film, taking a bath, or listening to music. For some, even ironing can be relaxing, for others it is self-hypnosis, mindful meditation, or a massage. Be kind to yourself this Christmas season. Regularly, take time for ‘Stop and Think Moments’. Ask yourself: Why are you doing what you are doing? At which point will you have done enough for today? Are you busy doing things others think are important, busy doing things you think are important, or just being busy because you like being busy?
6. Keep control
“Stress is not what happens to us. It’s our response TO what happens. And RESPONSE is something we can choose”
~ Maureen Killoran
Keep a positive mindset within yourself. Avoid being critical of yourself to yourself, or to others. Be kind to yourself and do avoid being negative, as this can isolate you from solutions to challenges. Take time to boost your own sense of self. If you spend all your time and energy focusing what didn’t happen (past), or what could happen (future), you are going through today without even realising or benefiting from it in any way. Unhealthy, irrational or negative beliefs, about past, present or future events, whether real or imagined, can lead to unwelcome emotions (e.g. anger, anxiety, depression, guilt) and unwanted symptoms (e.g. tension, fatigue, illness). In addition, as financial stress can ruin your enjoyment of Christmas, keep control of your finances by creating a budget and sticking to it.
7. Use your support systems
“We can boost our immune systems by strengthening our social networks”
~ Wayne Dyer
Reach out to family, social and community support systems, not just for them to help you, but for you to offer help to others. It can be very rewarding to be able to give assistance to others, although without over-stretching yourself! Do consider how others respond to the festive season. If you have friends who may be alone or lonely over the holidays, explore whether you can include them in any social events, although some people choose to be quiet over the holidays.
8. Positive relationships
“Stress is caused by being HERE but wanting to be THERE”
~ Eckhart Tolle
Following on from the last point, spending time and interacting with others can help reduce stress and enhance self-esteem. Aim for a sense of balance. If you ‘have’ to spend time with people / family that are not pleasant, then also plan to counter the chore with something rewarding or positive. Social skills take practice and if you are naturally quiet or shy, it can be stressful if immersed in a busy environment, such as a party, especially as people can be more ‘themselves’ when alcohol is around.
Developing and rehearsing some coping strategies can be useful. During the festive season you may be more likely to meet up with, or be in contact with, people you haven’t seen or spoken with in a long time. If you find yourself struggling to make ‘small talk’, it can be useful to prepare, in advance, some questions and discussion points and a few interesting highlights of what you have been up to recently. If you are off visiting relatives, perhaps that super-critical aunt who will never have anything positive to say to you, accept in advance that she is a ‘character’ and choose to not take it personally. Christmas is a great time to set aside family and social differences and find common ground.
9. Define your role and delegate
“All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on”
~ Havelock Ellis
YOU don’t have to do everything. Engage with your assertiveness skills and say ‘no’ early on, rather than take on tasks that you don’t want to do, only to then start a festering resentment. Where other people could (or should) help, delegate. Do you really have to wrap all those presents by yourself? Could others help prep the Christmas dinner? Perhaps family or friends can do some of it. Share the work; share the fun too.
10. Be flexible with changes to routine
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another”
~ William James
Christmas is generally a change from your normal routines. You can either view the preparation and celebrations as chores and tasks and activities to be got through and endured, or you can choose to view the whole experience as an adventure. A time of exploration and a beneficial break from everyday routines. As already mentioned, good planning can be really helpful in reducing stress, by allocating sufficient time to get essential tasks completed. Avoid attempting to pack too much into each day; allow some down time and also build in some flexibility, so if one event over-runs, you are not in a huge rush to get to the next one. Keeping your healthy habits through times of stress or challenge, can help your body function better and enable you to cope better.
11. Set a stop time
“Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering”
~ Winnie the Pooh
Plan the point at which you stop all the preparations and simply start to enjoy the experience. Whether it is the month before Christmas (wow, that is organised!), the weekend before, or even early evening of Christmas eve, at some point, transition from all the ‘go-go-go’ and simply stop, relax and start to enjoy the Christmas holiday in your own way.
12. Be present on the day
“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment”
~ Amit Ray
Instead of thinking about past good (or better) Christmas’s and how future ones could be better than the present one, how other people’s Christmas’s are better than yours, or how you wanted the day to be totally perfect (it never is), stay present in the moment on Christmas day. Notice the good details, however small they are. Take the day as it comes, rather than measuring against possibly unrealistic expectations. Being present can allow you to connect to the beauty, delight and magic of special moments during the day. It can help you manage your energy better (negative ruminations can be very draining), as well as helping you make better informed choices (as you know what is going on, will understand more and won’t miss key information).
By being present, you are living fully, allowing more of your true self to emerge, whilst being more in control and better able to engage in all the festivities. In addition, your interpersonal relationships will be healthier, as you are more aware of your needs and those of those around you, so more able to develop empathy and compassion and communicate better and more effectively. Finally, by being present in the moment, rather than reacting to thoughts and emotions that can cause negativity and conflicting mind states, you can develop and maintain an inner strength, happiness and peace …and what better way to spend Christmas Day?
We HO-HO-hope this blog on 12 tips for a stress-free Christmas has been helpful, and if you have any questions relating to this blog, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!
Also, both of us here at HypnoTC: The Hypnotherapy Training Company wish you a very Merry Christmas, and we hope you have a Happy New Year too!
– written by Dr Kate Beaven-Marks