For some people, Christmas is a magical and optimistic time. They look forward to it, and love all the planning, anticipation and family get-togethers. For others, however, the festive season can be less enjoyable, and for some it’s an incredibly difficult time.
This could be because they don’t get on with certain family members, or they’re having difficulties with a partner that get amplified at Christmas. They may have recently lost a loved one, or perhaps they’re going to be on their own: this time of year can exacerbate feelings of loneliness.
Deciding who to see, and when, can cause headaches. Many of us will end up with conflicting invitations, priorities and commitments to co-ordinate. It can seem impossible to avoid upsetting someone, or letting people down!
Christmas can be stressful if it’s your responsibility to ‘make it happen’. People feel under a lot of pressure to make everything perfect, and it’s easy for the planning and organising to become overwhelming. Expectations are high, with constant messages from the media and advertisers about having the ‘best Christmas ever’. Christmas Day itself can feel like a whirlwind of activities on an endless to-do list.
For people who have anxiety, particularly in social situations, Christmas can present a lot of triggers. Many of us have parties and other events to attend, or we might be hosting a meal for a large group of guests. Being surrounded by people for extended periods of time can be difficult for someone who is socially anxious or introverted.
Let’s face it, the festive season is never going to be stress-free! But it’s a good idea at this point in the run-up to stop, breathe, take stock of how you’re feeling about things, and come up with a strategy for making the time as special and enjoyable as it can be.
Pace yourself. Try to spread out the fun – and the stress! This time of year can feel like a relentless whirl. Things to organise, shopping to do, people to see… Remember that Christmas isn’t just about ‘the big day’; there’s also Christmas Eve, Boxing Day, and that week between Christmas and New Year that may involve a lot of cheese and bad films! By spreading out the celebrations you can make it easier to see everyone you’d like to see, and give yourself some breathing space.
If you find the non-stop social interactions exhausting, decide how many events in a week you’d be comfortable with attending. If the most you can handle without feeling drained is three, don’t feel bad about saying ‘no’ to the fourth.
Avoid putting pressure on yourself. There’s a lot of focus on getting one day exactly right. The reality might be that you burn the sprouts, have an argument, go down with a cold… If your plans don’t work out exactly as hoped, that doesn’t mean the day is ruined – you can have a great time anyway. And don’t compare your Christmas with others’. Social media heightens feelings of pressure – but remember that people only tend to post the good bits!
Set a budget, and stick to it. Spending can easily get out of control, which adds to the stress. Consider how much you can afford to spend on gifts, food and fun, and don’t go over it.
Practice self-care. It’s important to conserve your energy and protect your wellbeing. Alcohol can be tempting if your mood is low – but remember it’s a depressant, and could make you feel worse. Lots of rich food and not enough sleep also take their toll, making you lethargic. Taking time to get outside and get some exercise will give you a boost.
Focus on what matters most. What do you, and your nearest and dearest, most value about Christmas? What does it mean to you? Which bits do you really enjoy? Is it experiences, rather than things? We all need to juggle demands and make compromises at this time of year, but try to spend time doing the things that make you happiest.
Be mindful on the ‘big day’. There’s so much happening: opening presents, welcoming and looking after visitors, perhaps going to church, cooking a huge meal… After weeks of preparation, it can all go past in a blur! Try to notice what’s going on around you, and relish the ‘moments’ rather than worrying about what needs doing next. Ground yourself in your senses. Watch people opening gifts. Savour the taste of Christmas dinner. If you go out for a walk, take in your surroundings.
Being around people all day can be draining and stressful, so make space and time for yourself, perhaps by going for a walk or taking a bath.
If you’re on your own, and don’t want to be… Have a look online or in the library to see if any local organisations are holding community events or get-togethers.
Plan something to look forward to in January. Once the festivities are over, January can feel like a dreary month. Book tickets to a pantomime, plan days out, invite friends for a Burns Night supper…whatever makes it a bit brighter!
If you’re feeling stressed or anxious – whether or not Christmas has heightened this for you – cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can provide effective strategies for managing this. Taking Christmas as an example to give you an idea of how it works, the therapist might help you get perspective through examining expectations and how realistic they are. How important is it really that everything is flawless? Is that even possible? What will happen if something doesn’t go perfectly? The treatment could also help you focus on what’s most important to you, for instance by thinking back to what you’ve enjoyed about past Christmases, and ensuring you make room to get those things in.
Whether you’d like support before Christmas, or it’s one of your new year’s resolutions to start therapy, online CBT could help you find ways to cope and improve your emotional wellbeing. Find out more about what to expect during therapy or read more about how CBT can help with stress.