If the festive season can leave you feeling drained, help is at hand. Here, a psychologist shares her top tips for taking some of the pressure off
Merriment, cheer and joy to the world? Bah humbug! While we always look forward to celebrating Christmas, this time of year can come with a fair amount of stress. In fact, research from YouGov has revealed that a quarter of the UK finds the festive season more challenging for their mental health than the rest of the year.
The pressure to have fun during the festive season and the build-up to the perfect Christmas Day can take its toll on anyone. "One of the biggest psychological pressures surrounding Christmas is that it comes 'but once a year' and needs to be 'perfect'", explains Dr Audrey Tang, chartered psychologist and member of The British Psychological Society.
Whether it’s family and friends all coming to see you at once during the festive period, the “perfect” celebrations you see on social media or simply feeling guilty about reducing your festive spending during the cost-of-living crisis, we ask an expert how to cope with Christmas stress this holiday season.
And while it’s completely normal to feel stressed in the run-up to Christmas, if it’s the kind of stress that’s lasted a while, is affecting your day-to-day life or you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can seek help and support through your GP.
Here, we look at how to ease the pressure in the run up to the holidays…
1. Plan ahead & delegate
"The first thing you need to decide is: what is your vision of a perfect Christmas? Then, ask your loved ones the same question in advance. Together, you can plan a day that everyone can contribute to and get something out of," says Dr Tang.
"Having a clear list of what you need to do with timings is a good place to start – especially when it comes to gift buying in the weeks and days prior and cooking on the big day itself."
On the subject of Christmas Day, Dr Tang recommends asking yourself the following question: why are you hosting? Is it because you want to enjoy it, because you have to – or is it simply a way of controlling the day? If it’s beginning to all feel a bit much, asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of.
"Come to terms with the idea that being productive is not the same as being busy and delegate if you can,’ says Dr Tang. ‘If your toddler wants to decorate the tree or your mum wants to bring a trifle for Christmas dinner dessert – let them."
2. Hit snooze on social media
It’s easy to compare your own celebrations to images of immaculately decorated houses, expensive gifts and picture-perfect families on social media, but remember that life rarely imitates art and your private celebrations are not for others to comment on.
"Think about imposing an embargo on social media to ensure the only opinions that matter are those of you and the loved ones you’re celebrating with," says Dr Tang. "If any social media accounts make you feel less than or drive you to post pictures of the #bestchristmasever – put them on your unfollow or mute lists".
3. Navigate awkward family gatherings
If you really struggle at Christmas, ensure you have things to hand that make you feel better and are easily accessible. For example, music that calms you, photos that make you smile or scents that evoke positive memories.
"Create a 'coping' checklist and show those you are spending Christmas with, so that they can help you to help yourself," says Dr Tang.
But what about when dear old uncle Bob starts a discussion about politics or another dinner table taboo subject as you tuck into your turkey? To avoid this from happening, it’s best to be direct and nip it in the bud beforehand. "Open lines of communication are always important, so if there are topics you do not wish brought up, maybe have that conversation before the event," suggests Dr Tang.
"Perhaps you can work out an 'escape clause' or safe word, so that if the conversation gets awkward, someone will know to change the subject – and have a list of topics you could jump onto at the ready (think TV, films or a game to distract)."
4. Take the pressure off gifting
Christmas during the cost-of-living crisis makes it more important than ever to set boundaries and find the best deals possible for gifts that mean more than they cost.
"Set a limit on the amount everyone will spend or decide to make presents this year," says Dr Tang. ‘Perhaps each person can bring a dish to take the pressure off the host or a board game to entertain.
"By making expectations clear at the outset, people know what they need to do, and if anyone does go 'overboard' – they know (as do you) that you have been clear and this was their choice."
5. The power of saying “no”
"Boundary setting is a form of self-care," explains Dr Tang. "Remember that 'no' is a complete sentence."
If you’re being inundated with invites from family and friends keen to meet up over the festive period and requests to "pop round" for a catch-up, Dr Tang recommends setting a time limit on requests by saying something like: “Of course I’d love to have you round, but we can only do it for 10 minutes.”
You can also delay by saying: “I don’t have my diary – can I let you know?” "This gives you time to think about whether you really can do something and think of an excuse if necessary," says Dr Tang.
And if someone is asking for your time or help during an already busy time, empower them instead of taking over by saying: “How would you like me to help you?” "This ensures the responsibility is on the other person to define the problem and what they see as a workable solution," adds Dr Tang. "Signpost them elsewhere for help. One example is: “I can’t take the tree to the tip, but there may be someone who will recycle old trees, so check with your local authority.'"
Four tools for keeping calm
When things get too much, these tools may help you reduce everyday stress and keep in control this Christmas. It can help to practise these techniques even when you aren’t experiencing distress, so they work more effectively in the heat of the moment.
Research shows that affirmations can buffer the effects of stress. "These positive mantras act as handy reminders in a stressful moment that you can only control your reactions to chaos," says Dr Tang. Try “Even if I cannot control anything else, I can control my breathing”.
Incorporate a daily gratitude practice
"We might not celebrate Thanksgiving in the UK, but research suggests that gratitude is a key emotion in helping us persevere in challenging tasks, such as hosting a three-course Christmas lunch for your in-laws," says Dr Tang.
"Stretch your arms and think about one thing you are proud of or grateful for that has happened so far today. Stretch your legs and think about one thing you are looking forward to today. Not only does this get you to focus on the now, but it gives you a chance to reset your posture."
Try a TIPP technique
Dr Tang suggests trying the TIPP technique to help control overwhelming emotions:
• Change the Temperature: stressful situations can often make us feel uncomfortably hot, so try opening a window or carrying a handheld fan.
• Change the Intensity: focus on counting the seconds on a clock, or the paving slabs – anything to get yourself out of your head for a moment, and this will slow your breathing, too.
• Paired muscle relaxation: tensing and relaxing pairs of muscles (eg, toes, hands and eyes) is another calming ritual.
• Paced breathing: breathe in for four, hold for two and out for six, for three to four cycles.
Count it down
A Christmas version of the “54321” grounding technique could also help give you some much-needed headspace and calm in stressful situations:
• Name five festive things you can see
• Name four festive things you can hear
• Name three festive things you can smell
• Name two festive things you can touch
• Name one festive thing you can taste
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