At This Time of Year – Stress and Christmas

As I look at my calendar there are 48 sleeps ‘til Christmas. Does that figure give you a jolt? Only 48 days to go; for lots of people, only one more payslip….. (sorry!)

Yes, once more the Season is almost upon us, and I mean the season of Stress and pressure. The season of rushing about, worrying about spending too much money, having to “fit everyone in” and mainly of trying to be all things to all people. And beating ourselves up when we’re not. (You may not know this, but Dec/Jan can be one of the busiest times in a therapist’s diary as people struggle under pressure).

Every year I feel more and more for the many people in our society who are isolated, who are alone, who are sad, and for whom Christmas is something to be endured rather than celebrated. Not everyone is surrounded by family and friends. I think its an age thing (I’m getting old now!) but for me the spirit and true meaning of Christmas is lost somewhere amongst all the glitz and shiny wrappings; Christmas is a time of peace, of hope, the innocence of children, not BOGOFs on chocolates and booze, party outfits and “must have” gifts.

A few years ago I published an article here called “20 things about Stress”. Here I have updated it, but left the same basic guidance in place. Hopefully, something I’ve written will help you.

Always remember, you DO have a voice and how YOU feel does matter. The first thing about coping with a stressful situation is to acknowledge that it IS stressful, and that you are no less of a person if you need help to manage it. Sometimes I think a professional logistics expert would struggle to juggle all those balls you’re trying to keep in the air.

Understanding what it is about that particular situation that causes you stress will help you identify what about it you need to change. But you will need to be prepared to make some changes for yourself.

Stress is not a condition on its own, it is a reaction to an external factor. You don’t “have” stress, you are experiencing it. Most people, when experiencing extreme pressure, call themselves stressed.

But it’s not an event itself that causes us stress – that comes from how we react to something and how we are able to deal with it. So at this time of year, it’s not Christmas that’s making you stressed, it’s the expectations you place on yourself, and your fear of not living up to them. It’s the Shoulds, the Oughts and the Musts that put you under the pressure.

When people under pressure are asked to describe their feelings, they often describe feeling pulled in both directions at once, overloaded, at breaking point. Anyone trying to appease difficult relatives will acknowledge this one.

Stress can have physical symptoms which include headaches, muscle tension, loss of appetite, sweating, poor sleep, dizziness, nausea, just to name a few. There are also potential psychological symptoms like anxiety, low self esteem, constant worry, irritability, racing thoughts, poor concentration.

Stress is not ALL bad. Some stress is healthy and even aids productivity/creativity. Our bodies naturally respond to certain stimuli by creating an appropriate amount of pressure, releasing chemicals into our body to spur us into action.

The body sometimes uses crying as a tool to relieve the emotional tension and symptoms of stress. That’s why some of us get tearful when we are massively frustrated. And because our bodies are magnificent at self-regulation, the polar opposite also works just as well – so a real deep belly laugh can also do the trick. That’s why sometimes, laughing really does end in crying, as our bodies exploit the opportunity to release a build up of emotions.

People who cry after a major trauma are more likely to remain healthy than those who do not exhibit any emotion; those people may already be shutting down, or feeling overwhelmed.

What feels stressful to one person might not to another. We all have different triggers. A good idea is to start a “stress diary” which will help you identify what your specific triggers to feeling stress are.

It helps to keep things in perspective. So what if you are late to the party? So what if your dinner table does not exhibit the same level of perfection as the one in the glossy Christmas supplement (that took 3 table dressers 6 hours to perfect anyway) Who cares if the present is not perfectly wrapped in the correct brand of paper?

Learn to say NO. If you don’t HAVE to do something, then its ok not to do it. You’re not letting anyone down. I’m a great believer in dropping anything from your day that you don’t have to do. Be ruthless! Every one of those things you try to fit in will sap a bit more of your resilience.

Give yourself some breathing space! Taking the burden of unnecessary things out of your schedule will help you feel more in control and less overwhelmed. Nowhere in the message or spirit of Christmas does it say – thou shalt spend time with all relatives on both sides of the family thus leaving no time for yourself.

If you are really feeling the pressure, take 5 minutes out to sit quietly and breathe, calmly and steadily. This will bring your heart rate down and help you to feel more in control. If you’re hosting, let everyone think you’re in the kitchen, stick some ready made food in the oven and then go sit in a quiet room elsewhere for 5 mins alone. If you have a family pet, have a cuddle, or be the one who takes the dog out and leave everyone else to “do their bit”.

Talking things through with a sympathetic friend can really help you to feel less isolated, and more positive about taking control. Feeling in control of your situation is one of the key ways to cope with stress; when you feel like you have a choice or a way of coping it is always easier to do just that. Sharing the burden can also make a difference.

Be smarter! And be realistic with yourself. It helps to accept there are limits to how far your powers and your stamina will stretch. In this world there are some things we cannot control or change, and that is how the world is supposed to be. Save your energy to deal with the things that you can. Or just as importantly, the things you really do NEED to. If your family is safe and secure, with shelter and food, then you took care of business. Everything else is just window dressing.

Be kind to yourself, its the least you deserve.


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