It’s great to invest in Christmas, but the holiday season also brings its own pressures, not least the pressure to be happy. Last week's Your Mental Health column in the Southern Star offered some tips on how to cope with Christmas stress. The column is reproduced below.
The old song says Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year”, but it can also be a stressful period where a combination of pressures – financial, familial, psychological – mean many people approach the holiday season with a sense of foreboding rather than joyful anticipation.
In fact, Christmas can be tricky even for people who love the festivities. In one study, most people said they enjoyed Christmas but nevertheless almost half (44 per cent) said it could be very stressful. There is so much to do at Christmas – shopping, cooking for large numbers, catering for visits from in-laws and relatives – and the planning and work can result in tensions spilling over and to feelings of being overwhelmed.
Then there are the family dynamics. A trip back home, particularly for adult children who may not have been in the same room as all of their siblings over the past year, can often be a ‘psychological minefield’, to quote author and Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman. It’s common for both siblings and parents to regress back into family roles adopted many years or even decades earlier. Most of the time, this is perfectly harmless and can involve an element of comedy that binds the family together, but other times old family alliances and divisions resurface. People can needle each other and push each others’ buttons, with all kinds of emotions – envy, resentment, sibling rivalry and competitiveness – bubbling over.
It’s important to have realistic expectations when it comes to family dynamics, to know your own triggers and to plan accordingly. If certain family activities invariably lower your mood, politely try and avoid them or at the very least shorten your participation in them. Everyone needs their own space so it’s important to find room for the stress-relieving measures you use in normal day-to-day life, whether that be taking a hot bath, making time for a short mindfulness session, a walk with the dog – whatever works for you.
The most ancient and ultimately ineffective stress reliever – alcohol – should be consumed in moderation. Alcohol is a depressant: far from curing the blues, it accentuates them and its disinhibiting effect makes you far more likely to blurt out harsh words that are later regretted. Instead, try to stay active. It’s nice to take it easy at Christmas but cabin fever can set in, and hours spent overindulging in front of the TV can lead to restlessness and fatigue.
Christmas is, of course, an expensive time of the year, but it’s important to be commonsensical and not spend more money than you can afford. Use cash and debit cards and stick to a reasonable Christmas budget. Ideally, families should agree to a designated spending limit, so that the cost of presents don’t exceed a given amount. The psychological strain associated with a new year debt hangover shouldn’t be underestimated. Besides, it’s unnecessary: the aforementioned Christmas study found people derived greatest satisfaction from family and spiritual activities at Christmas, while the materialistic aspects – namely, spending money and receiving presents – undermined the seasonal experience.
LONELY AT CHRISTMAS
One common myth surrounding Christmas is that suicide rates spike higher at this time of year. In fact, many studies show suicide rates are actually lower than average at Christmas, with suicide tending to peak in warmer months. What is true, however, is that Christmas can be difficult if you are lonely (the void left by the loss of a loved one can seem especially marked at Christmas) or depressed or just down on your luck. There has always been a pressure to be happy at Christmas and I agree with comedian Russell Brand, who memorably wrote in his autobiography that he was ‘against the prescription of, say, “ooh, it’s Christmas o’clock. Smile everyone!”’
It’s great to invest in Christmas, but there’s no law saying you have to be happy at this time of year. There are highs and lows to life, ebbs and flows. If things are tough at the moment, then things are tough at the moment – that’s all. Try not to engage in excessive self-reflection and rumination just because it’s Christmas.