Avoid holiday anxiety and make the festive break less stressful.
9 Minute ReadFeature
by Jessica Lacey
25.10.23 (Updated 29.11.23)
It’s not uncommon to anticipate Christmas and the holiday season with equal parts joy and dread. The bustle of gift buying, the convivial throng, the anticipation of feasting and ye old faithful carols taking temporary residence of the radio - it’s a delectable smorgasbord of festive frenzy and we’re drawn to it every single year. But when the exuberance tips ever so slightly into overwhelm, it’s smart to have a few coping mechanisms up your fur-trimmed sleeve. There are certain elements of the festivities that many of us find stressful, so we should know these triggers and face them, antlers on.
Trigger #1: Having to make the magic happen
Somewhere between Bethlehem and Boxing Day, Christmas adopted the expectation of enchantment. The pressure to create Christmas magic and transform an ordinary calendar day into one of wonderment, armed only with a tangle of fairy lights and a generous dollop of brandy butter. Holidays are often filled with unrealistic expectations and come alongside an added feeling of pressure to get things perfect. When that doesn’t happen, it can make us feel like we’ve failed in some way.
Tackle the trigger: Look to create a Christmas that’s meaningful rather than magical; it will be far more rewarding, not to mention achievable. Remember that perfection doesn’t exist outside of a jar of Biscoff. Things will definitely go wrong, but that’s exactly how real life rolls. If you can find amusement in the calamities, you’ve already won. Change the focus from how the day looks aesthetically, to the importance of spending time with family. Listen, laugh, play games together and spend time connecting.
Trigger #2: The endless task list
Even when approached with plenty of gusto, there’s a heck of a lot to get done whilst trying to avoid the most dreaded holiday burnout. In the coalface of the kitchen, pans are bubbling over and potatoes are yet to be peeled and yet there you are, passive-aggressively ushering your guests back into the calm of the living room for yet another brandy.
Tackle the trigger: Better to be a festive task force, working together elf-style, than you solo reaching peak exhaustion and losing your temper.
“Allowing people to be involved and make a meaningful contribution helps them feel useful, trusted and valued. It’s a basic human need that feeds our self-esteem, nourishes our bonds and creates a feeling of community,“
explains Suzy Reading, chartered psychologist and author of And Breathe: A Journal for Self-Care. “Divvy up the responsibilities and give everyone a job - even the kids can take ownership of an age-appropriate task and feel important. Everyone can bring a dish, help prepare the vegetables, lay the table, pour the drinks, fold the napkins, or help clear away.” Whatever it is, Reading says, make it a team effort.
“You might think you’re treating your guests well by allowing them to sit back and relax but they’ll be well aware of the stress permeating from the kitchen and they’ll be itching to be allowed to help. If it feels uncomfortable assigning jobs, ask for helpers and let people decide for themselves how they can dig in.”
Trigger #3: All That eating and that self-loathing feeling
The Italians bake up endless panettones, in Canada it’s cookies all round, the Swede’s love a pickled fish platter, whilst the Aussies BBQ on the beach and would you believe it the Japanese eat KFC? Seriously. Eating makes up an important pillar of the festive period and is a global phenomenon come Christmas time but what we think our body wants and what it actually wants can be very different things. The feeling of being over-fed can lead to self-loathing and too much alcohol can make us feel poisoned, rather toxic and on the brink of a burnout. Plus, it’s been scientifically proven that a high-fat diet overlaps with the effects of chronic stress that are known to play a hand in causing depression. This may explain why overeating — particularly the high-fat, low-nutrient foods people are more prone to binge eat — can lead to stress and anxiety.
Tackle the trigger: “Learn the difference between satisfaction and fullness”, explains Pandora Paloma, Life Coach and author of Intuitive Living.
“Ask yourself if what you’re having is actually satisfying you or if you’re simply eating it because it’s there.
"If you don’t love it, don’t eat it; if you love it, savour it!”
Get to know what being comfortably full feels like, says Paloma, rather than being stuffed. “In Intuitive Eating we use a hunger scale, which helps you identify when you are under or over eating. Try not to get ‘hangry’ as this easily leads to overeating before reaching satiety as well as playing havoc with your blood sugar levels.”
Trigger #4 The intensity of complex family dynamics
Everyone’s family is a mess to varying degrees, especially when many of us haven’t seen these blood strangers for a full year or more. Who doesn’t have a sibling who can take them from gracious to furious in one beautifully barbed comment? With a lot of personalities and red wine to match, it’s very easy to stumble into Brexit, Bo Jo’s secret party and if a same sex couple will win Strictly.
Tackle the trigger: If you struggle with certain family members, be realistic about how much time is healthy to spend with them and set a limit - instead of staying the night, perhaps visit them for lunch. “Give yourself permission to pace yourself over the festive period – a day's break in between catch ups and white space protected in your calendar where you can choose how you replenish yourselves,“ says Suzy Reading. “Even with the most harmonious of dynamics it’s unlikely to be wall to wall joy. In every get together there is likely to be conflicting opinions, uncomfortable moments, rustiness and awkward silences especially in addition to the juicy good bits, especially after so much time apart. It’s all par for the course.
Take yourself off into another room for a private cathartic release
– a few shrug and sighs, (squeeze your shoulders up to your ears, exhale with a sigh and let them drop, or a good old lion breath (breathe in through your nose, exhale through your mouth with a roar, extending the tip of your tongue as far out as possible). There’s nothing wrong with gently letting people know when they are impinging on our boundaries – while it might sound really loud in our heads, people can’t read our minds.”
Trigger #5 Social media and the sense of not being enough
Everything’s going great, spirits are high and the dinner’s on schedule so you dare to dream that you might just to pull this off. Then you just take a sneaky glance at your social media feed only to see a host of celebrities and your social nemesis having the Christmas parties of a lifetime. Everyone is gorgeous, virtually exploding with joy, lavished in gifts and the epitome of cute in their matching family bobble hats. All of a sudden, your celebrations seem drab and uninspiring.
Tackle the trigger: Your festive joy is to be found right where you are and who you’re with, not in your phone. Comparison swiftly fizzles out all Christmas spirit.
Guaranteed someone will always have a bigger tree, a better laid table, a juicier turkey…
whatever it is, you just don’t need to see it. It’s always worth remembering that the best times are those when you’re so swept up in the fun that you don’t think to take a single picture. However, those people have been detached enough to step away from their celebrations, load that image and aptly filter and caption it, so it can’t be that incredible now, can it? In the same vein, don’t try to project a perfect festive scene on social media, it serves no one. It’s not truthful and it might make someone out there feel even worse about theirs. Stay present and focused on what’s in the room and happening in your reality, you’ll appreciate it far more.
Trigger #6: The lethargy
Languishing in your pyjamas all day can be romanticised as snuggly, only come 4pm it can feel a tad closer to slovenly. Most of us aren’t students anymore and nor do we want to be. It’s important to get rest and stock up on sleep and there’s always an important place reserved for brunch but not knowing what day it is can be distinctly disorientating.
Tackle the trigger: “Trust yourself. It’s been a big year and if you need a duvet day, give it to yourself.
But true rest comes from true relaxation, so be aware of what your body needs”, advises Pandora.
“There is a big difference between resting and being lazy, and only you know what that means to you. But resting whilst scrolling is not true rest. Also remember that nature nurtures, so getting outdoors will always make you feel good. Give yourself permission to think about 2022 and what the year represents to you, how you want to feel, what are you taking into the year and what are you leaving behind? Lethargy isn’t just in the body, sometimes giving your mind a kick-start and focusing on the year ahead can set the tone for the year itself.”
Trigger #7: Radical uncertainty
Nice to have a new addition to the festive triggers hit list and this year is one of ‘will it all be taken away from us at the very last minute’? Guidelines and restrictions are continually being updated and the global population is tapering their behaviour to protect against a fairly insistent pandemic. When you’ve meticulously planned a three-course gastronomic extravaganza and have a finalised blueprint of sleeping arrangements, only to be told it’s just you, him and the cat, it would be very easy to slip into lockdown meltdown.
Tackle the trigger: Facing uncertainty can be just as anxiety inducing and sometimes even harder than coping with real-life negative events. The normal human tendency is to be drawn to worse case scenarios and catastrophic thinking. Prolonged uncertainty is incredibly taxing for the nervous system which aims to keep us safe in the presence of so many fluctuating variables, resulting in real fatigue and low mood.
“The remedy is two-fold, requiring compassion and being prepared to adapt. When your brain goes into overdrive, allow yourself to think about the worst-case scenarios. Telling ourselves not to think about something seldom works and often makes that thought even more tenacious.
"In surrendering to some of those more catastrophic thoughts you generate some useful solutions,” explains Reading
“But don’t stop there – also give equal air time to the best-case scenario, imagining that with all your senses and reflecting on the most likely outcome too. This is how we bring more balance to our thinking.”
In the midst of uncertainty, aim to be flexible. Even if you love a plan, just make sure you have multiple options so you can choose your own adventure depending. “All the gentle coaxing of the inner dialogue keeps the mind anchored on what you can control.”
And most of all, have fun. Merry Christmas from LYMA.