Below is the latest blog from Wilmslow town centre’s very own Sarah d.Rees offering advice and support for managing Christmas Stress!
Love it or loathe it, there’s no denying the ‘season to be jolly’ is, for many, the ‘season to be super stressed’. Christmas can be magical, but it can also take an incredible toll on our mental health. Living through a global pandemic has made this time of year even more difficult. Over the last 18 months, many of us have experienced grief, loss, ill health, long-term isolation and constant uncertainty. In other words, we were burnt out and exhausted before we’d even opened the first door of our advent calendars.
What is Stress?
Before we dive into managing stress, let’s look at what it is. Stress is a mixture of pressure and anxiety. It can come from external factors such as work or financial worries, or from internal factors such as self-criticism and high expectations. Stress increases levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the body, both of which negatively impact our physical health as well as our mental health.
Although stress affects everyone differently, there are some common symptoms:
– Disturbed sleep
– Palpitations and anxiety
– Loss of appetite
– Poor concentration
– Lack of enjoyment from things
– Wanting to withdraw
– Being more irritable or angry with loved ones
– Making simple mistakes
– Feeling tired, exhausted
– Lack of motivation
– Low libido
‘Tis the Season to be Super Stressed
What is it about Christmas that makes it so stressful? Advent-induced pressure can be horrendous. The pressure to have a great time, look amazing, cook the best food, be sociable and attend every party (when all you want is an early night in your comfiest PJs). Then there’s the pressure to buy the best presents, the pressure to avoid weight gain and the pressure to see all your family and friends (even the ones you don’t really like). And finally, there’s the pressure to do all this with a big smile on your face. I think they call it ‘spreading festive cheer’.
Sounds fun and achievable, right? Of course not.
Write it Out
As a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, the key advice I would give right now is to work on changing those patterns that have created Christmas stress in the past. The main concept behind CBT is that our thoughts, feelings and behaviour are all interconnected. We can’t change things unless we become more aware of them and are willing to acknowledge the issues they are causing. At Christmas, everyone’s trigger points will be different, but awareness is the first point of change.
One of the best ways to become more aware of the patterns of our mind is to ‘write it out’. Start by writing a list of the things you find most unmanageable about Christmas. This will help you home in on key problem areas. Planning comes next! Write down your goals and plan, in manageable steps, how you will reach them. When we write down our goals, we are 10 times more likely to achieve them.
Often, we focus outwards, but it’s important to consider what you need to have in place to support yourself. As Maya Angelou says, ‘keep your home fires burning so everyone can feel your glow’. In other words, caring for yourself is a way to care for others.
For more information and advice, read my Beginner’s Guide to Journaling.
COVID Christmas Stress
For many reasons, family relations are often strained at Christmas. This year, we’re also having to contend with family members who have strong and often differing views and tolerances towards COVID. Over the last few months, I’ve heard countless stories of families being torn apart by disagreements.
The pandemic isn’t over, and we must continue being careful to keep everyone safe. However, different people face different risks and are at different points with what they’ve been through. I would highly recommend discussing your holiday plans with your loved ones as soon as possible to avoid extra tension over the festive season. Communication is key and putting together a plan that makes everyone feel comfortable is a good idea.
To help you cope with any uncertainty, you might want to devise a flexible ‘Plan B’ too. For example, making sure food can be frozen, having a good movie list to turn to, or scheduling a few outdoor walks so people can keep their distance.
More Tips for Tackling Christmas Stress
Spend time with friends – Humans are social beings and feeling connected is a major factor in our wellbeing. Although isolation has protected us from COVID over the last 18 months, we know too much time alone poses a real risk to our physical and mental health. As I write this, there are very few restrictions in place. This could change, but I think we need to be mindful of how important it is to be with people face-to-face as opposed to online.
Lower expectations – Striving to have a fantastic time means we’re ultimately setting ourselves up for major disappointment. This doesn’t just apply at Christmas – we are guilty of expecting too much year-round in many different situations. Having more flexibility in our expectations will give us more resilience when things don’t go to plan.
Know your stress anchors – We all have practices and activities that leave us feeling nourished and calm, but we often forget to make them our top priority. Some of my stress anchors include walking our dogs, journaling, going to the gym and connecting with friends. If you need help identifying and prioritising yours, you can download my stress anchors worksheet here.
Plan your downtime – While we tend to excel at scheduling in the things we need to do, we often forget about booking in some downtime. Whether you want to take some time for yourself or spend it with friends and family, it’s important to remember Christmas is supposed to be a holiday.
Have a stopping point – Decide when you’ll stop your Christmas preparations and start to relax and enjoy the season. Work towards this date and try to stick to it, even if it’s set for as late as the afternoon of December 24th!
Avoid excessive alcohol – Yes, it’s Christmas, and nobody wants to be a party pooper, but we can’t ignore the impact alcohol has on our mental health. It dehydrates our bodies and makes our liver work overtime. It also reduces our inhibitions and can make arguments or overeating more likely, ultimately leading to self-criticism. As a rule of thumb, drink equal parts water or juice to alcohol, as this will help you to stay hydrated and therefore cope better with stressful situations.
Merry Christmas, One and All!
I’m not going to say, ‘it’s only one day of the year’, because for many Christmas equates to weeks of stress and anxiety. Try a couple of the tips above, find your coping strategies and don’t beat yourself up if you drop a few plates. Where possible, focus on the things and people you love. More than anything, I’d like to encourage you to work on building more emotional resilience all year round. You can download my free guide here.
To find out more about Sarah and the support and services she offers visit https://sarahdrees.co.uk/