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How to Avoid an Anxious Advent, image: Pexels
Health and beauty
November 2021
Reading time 5 Minutes

Getting through the challenges of Christmas

At the time of writing this piece, pretty soon Christmas will be everywhere. Fenwick’s window is up and running, the supermarkets are already teeming with bright red festive displays and the department stores playing ‘Now that’s what I call Christmas’ on a never-ending loop.

Every television ad, lit by firelight and fairy dust, will bombard us with the ideal image of what our lives should look like during the festive period - from the whirlwind of glamorous pre-Christmas parties, to the scene of the perfect family getting along famously as they tuck into their perfectly cooked turkey. Christmas is about being with friends and family we are told, it’s about giving and receiving loads of expensive stuff and it’s about having a fantastic time no matter what, and if it’s not like that, then quite frankly you have ‘failed’. So much pressure, so much expectation placed on just one day.

‘Merry Christmas’, ‘Glad Tidings’, ‘Tis the season to be jolly’ are all familiar phrases we hear and use around Christmas time. However, whilst Christmas (and the build up to it) can of course be wonderful, it can also be a source of immense stress. A stress that often goes unacknowledged, because it’s Christmas and we are obliged to greet it with childlike enthusiasm, lest we get labelled the Grinch. So we struggle on, accepting all invitations and agreeing through gritted teeth to have those distant cousins over for Christmas dinner, because what difference will another couple of mouths to feed make anyway?

The expectation that you should be excited and looking forward to Christmas is strong and so if for any reason, you would far prefer that Christmas be cancelled this year, you may be feeling quite alone in this.  Finding Christmas difficult is far more common than you might imagine however with a recent YouGov survey reporting that 1 in 7 British adults actively hate Christmas, while 1 in 3 feel anxious about the festive period. 

Christmas can be a challenging time
There are many reasons why we might struggle during the festive season and few of us have the ‘picture postcard’ Christmas setup depicted in the adverts. Perhaps you’ll be spending Christmas alone and are dreading how you will get through the day. Perhaps there are family tensions that you are worried could simmer over into conflict. Or perhaps you’re doing the hosting and the pressure to make the day “perfect” is weighing heavily upon you.

You may be stressed out about the financial burden of Christmas and be worrying about choosing the “right” gifts and being seen to spend the “right” amount of money. Or you might have suffered a loss this year and find that you begin to feel your grief more intensely as we move closer to Christmas. The firsts are typically the hardest and it is likely that your loved one’s absence from the usual festive rituals will bring your sadness to the fore. The empty chair at the dinner table, card missing from the mantlepiece, and the absence of a gift under the tree all serving as difficult triggers. 

Go gently on yourself
Whatever it is that is troubling you as we enter the festive season, it is likely that the expectations we have about this time of year and the pressure they create are playing a significant role in the stress you are feeling. We often imagine that we should both feel good at Christmas and want to participate in all the social gatherings, so as not to “spoil it” for anybody else, and so if for any reason we are not feeling 100%, the anxiety about putting on a happy performance is real. Similarly, the negative comparisons we can make between what our Christmas is going to look like and what we imagine everyone else is doing can really set us up to feel rubbish this time of year. 

How would it be then to simply accept our situation as it is without judgement? If we’re sad, could we allow ourselves just to be sad and to opt out of the rituals we don’t have the emotional energy for? And, if we’re spending Christmas alone, could we seize the opportunity to do whatever we want without getting bogged down in loneliness or shame about our situation?

Make a plan
With a bit of mental discipline we can free ourselves from the expectations that are binding us and make the best of whatever our Christmas brings.

Here are some of our top tips on how you might do this.

1) Fully embrace the word ‘No’

All too often we take on too much around this time of year, be it trying to squeeze too many events into our diaries or having more people over than we can manage. When we overstretch ourselves like this we very quickly become tired, stressed and resentful and so it is important to not only know our own limits, but also to fiercely protect these boundaries. Think about your Christmas plans and be honest with yourself. Have you committed yourself to social events or responsibilities that feel too much? And if so, how can you get out of them? Saying “No” can be very difficult, especially at this time of year, but sometimes it is the most important thing that we can do, if we are to prevent ourselves from getting burnt out.

2) Lighten your load

Check that you’re not taking on too much responsibility for the enjoyment of others. Everyone can play their part in making Christmas special, so share out the jobs with the people around you. For example, if you’re hosting a Christmas party or a family Christmas, why not get everyone to bring a dish? Asking for even a tiny bit of help will take some of the pressure off you, which can make a big difference to how you feel.

3) It is what it is so let’s try to make the best of it

If like the rest of us, your life is not perfect, you may find that Christmas has the power to really bring that into focus, making it harder to bear than at other times of the year. Whatever your situation, it’s important to think about the potential challenges of Christmas in advance, so that you can be prepared.

Be really clear about what the issues are and then ask yourself the following questions: Is this a situation that you can change? If the answer is ‘Yes’, what could you do about it? If the answer is ‘No’, is there anything that you could do to make the day a little easier? Tackling the issues head on will help to ease any anxiety that you may have about the day and help you to make the best of your situation.

4) Remember to have a good time

The pressure that we feel around Christmas often centres upon material things, the quality of the food, how nice the Christmas tree looks, the gifts bought etc.  Yet when we reflect on previous Christmases we tend to focus upon the experience i.e. how we actually felt, which has very little to do with the aforementioned list.

Of course you want you and your loved ones to enjoy the day, but remember that how well you’ve timed the cooking of the meal will have little to no impact upon this. So take the pressure off, stop striving for perfection and just focus on having a nice time.

5) Step into the moment

It is so easy to get caught up in the ‘doing’ of Christmas. There’s so much to think about that it can be all consuming. This however often adds to the stress that we feel, so it’s essential to try to step away from the ‘to do’ list and make some time for yourself to relax, both in the build-up and during the actual day. Put whatever you’re doing down, look around you and just take a few moments to breathe and be in the moment. This is your Christmas, it is as it is and it only comes once a year, so you might as well do your best to try to enjoy it.

Dr Rhian J Lewis and Joanne Thornton are therapists at The Clearing, the place for online counselling, psychotherapy and support.

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