We often think of Christmas as a time of joy and happiness. But for some people, this time of year is more stressful than getting caught speeding or jaywalking. Christmas has even been linked to an increased risk of heart attack possibly due to the yearly pressure and emotional distress
There are many reasons why people find Christmas to be stressful – including pressure to find the perfect gift to give someone, pressure to have the perfect family gathering, and financial worries. The pandemic has only worsened the negative effect of the holidays on mental health.
But there are a few things people can do to help them deal with the stress of the holiday season.
1. Forget Perfection
Many people beat themselves up if their Christmas isn’t perfect – especially parents. It’s important to try not to fall into this “perfectionism trap” where you’re motivated by fear of failure. Not only can it lead to feelings of distress and lower life satisfaction for parents, it might also lead some to avoid their favourite parts of the holidays due to fear of getting things wrong. But avoiding things or worrying about perfection may mean we miss out on some of the positive things that happen at this time of year.
Staying present and practising mindfulness (a type of meditation) are both techniques people can use to avoid this trap of perfectionism. For example, reflect on the present moment instead of thinking about the things you have to do, or your future plans.
Having an imperfect Christmas may even be beneficial to you. By embracing the possibility of things going wrong, we can actually learn to be flexible and better deal with failure or challenges the next time we face them.
2. Change Your Mindset
Since we can’t avoid Christmas, trying to change how we think about it might help us cope with the stress.
Research on stress mindsets shows that if we think of stress as something that will help us improve ourselves – instead of seeing it as something which will be hard on us – we may actually experience more positive emotions and be more flexible when we face challenges.
There are three simple steps you can follow to do this. The first step is acknowledging that Christmas is indeed stressful, and that you may be feeling stressed about it.
The second step is to pay attention to why you might be feeling stressed. Perhaps it’s because you’re stressed you can’t travel home for the holidays to see family, or because you’re worried about having the perfect day. Often, stress is caused by worrying about things that are important to us.
Finally, look at your typical response to stress and ask if it’s getting in the way of what’s important to you. For example, you might be stressed because you want everything to be perfect for your children on Christmas day – but that stress may mean you end up shouting at them.
While following these steps won’t actually reduce the amount of stress you’ll experience, it will change how you see the impact of the stress on you. You can even repackage how you see the holidays by simply changing how you talk about them. For example, try saying “Christmas isn’t stressful, it’s exciting!” or “I’m excited and I’m really worked up about Christmas because I love my family and I am so looking forward to making the experience wonderful for them!” This may help you feel more excited and less stressed about the holidays – and may help you cope better when you do face stress.
3. Practice Self-Compassion
Even if you do find yourself becoming stressed by the holidays, having self-compassion may help you feel less distressed in the moment. It may even improve wellbeing and reduce the negative impact of stress.
Self-compassion involves taking kind action towards yourself during moments of stress. For example, meditation – specifically a type known as loving kindness meditation – may help improve self-compassion, and help us feel happier and more connected with others.
To practice this type of meditation, set aside around ten minutes each day, especially in the lead-up to Christmas. Start by sitting somewhere comfortable and closing your eyes. Then, imagine a person close to you who loves you, and redirect the feelings of love back to them. Then, follow the same process by thinking of other people in your life you know and care for, such as friends and acquaintances.
The idea with this type of meditation is that it will reduce feelings of stress by taking attention away from yourself and your stress, and redirecting it towards others you love.
If meditation isn’t for you, getting out of the house and into nature can help reduce stress and improve your mood. Reducing the amount of time you spend on your phone may also help you feel less stressed and happier.
While the pandemic may make you feel even more stressed about Christmas, it’s important to remember the reasons why we’re celebrating. This may help you feel less stressed about getting things right, and enjoy whatever time you can spend with family and friends.
Trudy Meehan, Lecturer, Centre for Positive Psychology and Health, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences and Jolanta Burke, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Positive Psychology and Health, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences