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Prepare yourself for this festive season with some practical tips to help you keep your cool and beat Christmas stress

After what feels like a two-year wait since we were last able to properly celebrate Christmas, the season of mince pies, Mariah and mistletoe is finally upon us. While some of us can’t wait to throw on our novelty pyjamas and tuck into some Quality Street, for others it can be an overwhelming and stressful time of year. In fact, nearly half of all Brits have felt stressed during the festive season, and one in four admit they find it more challenging than any other time of year. If you are feeling overwhelmed, there are plenty of simple steps you can take to regain control and enjoy happier holidays. 

Prepare for family time

Many of us have gone without a family get-together for a long time now, which can induce anxiety when it’s time to reunite over Christmas. “My clients often start to bring their apprehensions about Christmas to sessions towards the end of September,” says Floss Knight, psychotherapist and founder of UK Therapy Guide, an accessible ethical therapy platform. “Massive expectations are in the air, spurred on by idyllic adverts. For many people, the pressure starts to build and the idea of spending time with family can be stressful, even if they love them dearly. The version of you that your family knows may not be the person you think you are today, and this mismatch can cause tension,” she says. Setting boundaries and knowing your limits are key to overcoming this anxiety, explains Floss. “Only stay as long as you want to and feel comfortable. I suggest planning and making sure you have ways and means to find space and time on your own. Walk the dog, have a bath or take a nap. And if there are sensitive areas you don’t want to discuss during the holiday, communicate these clearly before the day,” she concludes.

Don’t break the bank

While an all-expenses-paid trip to Lapland might seem like the perfect gift, the best presents are not always the most lavish. Lee Chambers, environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant, says it’s important to remember there is no figure that you must spend at Christmas. “Write a list of what you need and what you want, so you can make informed decisions,” he says. “It will also help you to budget and prioritise if you’re realistic about the resources you have.” Using apps such as HyperJar or Plum provide an easy way to automatically save small amounts each week in the run-up to Christmas. “Preparation and a shopping list are key,” advises Lee. As the saying goes, it’s the thought that counts, so choose personal presents that your loved ones will really appreciate. For your stressed-out bestie? A bath set rather than an expensive spa day. For your beauty-obsessed sibling? A makeup palette as opposed to a professional facial. “Agree on spending limits with family and friends to manage what you spend,” says Lee, or encourage your friends and family to take the Secret Santa route (give one, receive one) to keep costs down. 

Combat loneliness

With lockdowns, travel bans and isolation periods, loneliness continues to be a painful symptom of the pandemic. Christmas can exacerbate this feeling but planning ahead can help. “Although it’s not true, it can seem that everyone is with friends or family at Christmas,” says Kathryn Dombrowicz, psychotherapist at The Soke. “Look online for local social activities or communities you can become part of,” she says. “Volunteering for charities that are particularly active at this time of year and who’d welcome your presence is also a rewarding way to feel a sense of community, while potentially building friendships for the future.” “Many people do spend the day or parts of Christmas alone. That doesn’t necessarily make it easier, but some may find comfort or solidarity in the knowledge,” adds Floss.

Ditch the Insta-perfect goals

Social media is the playground for envy and insecurity, and those demons love to rear their heads during the festive season, but don’t let the filtered perfection detract from your day. “Ask yourself what you need and desire most over Christmas, and put the emphasis on what’s great for you, rather than for show,” says Lee. “Try putting your phone away for an hour in the run-up to the day and see how it makes you feel. If it’s positive, consider doing it for longer on Christmas Day. All too often, we get caught up in the performance of looking like we’re enjoying something rather than enjoying the moment itself,” says Floss.

Food for thought

Conversations around food at Christmas can not only be tricky but triggering; whether we’re affected by body and eating issues or not, we should be mindful of how we discuss it. Michaela Thomas, clinical psychologist and author of The Lasting Connection, says any reference to “burning off” or “earning” calories should be avoided. “Try to reframe anxious moments – eating good food with loved ones fills us with joy and being in the moment can actually make you less likely to overindulge if you feel content,” Michaela says. For more information, visit beateatingdisorders.org.uk.

5 ways to avoid stress on the day

1. It sounds simple but if start to feel overwhelmed, take a step back and count to 10. Use that time to remind yourself what really matters, chances are burning the sprouts isn’t on the list.

2. Practice breathing techniques for a few minutes, such as 4-7-8, to quickly reduce feelings of stress (inhale for a count of 4, hold the breath for a count of 7, exhale for a count of 8).

3. When different generations and opinions come together in one room, tensions can run high. Ask yourself, “Do we need to agree about this?”

4. Social media can keep spirits up and does a good job of connecting people when they need it most, like Sarah Millican’s Twitter movement #joinin on Christmas Day.

5. Whether it’s listening to happy music, your favourite podcast or meditating, take time out to boost your mood and gather your thoughts.

Photography: Harry Pedersen.