Christmas is one of the most eagerly awaited events in the whole year, but for many people, Yuletide cheer comes at a price. According to the mental health charity, Mind, one on five adults say that they suffer high stress levels during the festive season.
“Although it’s a happy time for many, as the countdown to Christmas starts stress levels can really rise,” says Gladeana McMahon, co-director of the Centre for Stress Management., “Whether it’s the prospect of last minute Christmas shopping, spending too much money or several days at home with the extended family, for some, goodwill can seem in pretty short supply at this time of year, and anxiety may start to take over.”
Factor in too much rich food, bickering kids and an overdose of cold turkey, and you have a recipe for high blood pressure and angst.
Not surprisingly, women find the whole holiday more difficult to cope with than men, probably because they take on the bulk of shopping, cooking and present buying responsibilities. A UK-wide survey carried out by the Mental Health Foundation, found 46 per cent of women found Christmas stressful, as opposed to 37 per cent of men. Although women found the holiday more exciting than their male counterparts, they also said it was more tiring.
But it doesn’t have to be a stress-fuelled nightmare. “Christmas can be good for your physical and mental health,” says Gladeana McMahon.“You can sail through as long as you know how to avoid the pitfalls.”
So how do you keep calm this holiday season?
A little forethought can save you vast amounts of unnecessary strain later, according to Gladeana McMahon. “The more you plan the less stressful Christmas will be. List what the tasks that need to be done and in what order. Draw up a schedule which shows dates and deadlines and who is responsible for each task.
Always factor in extra time for the unexpected, like work problems and sick kids.
Don’t forget that some tasks need more time than others. Once you know what your time commitments are, you can avoid taking on unnecessary extra burdens, and will avoid double booking.”
Relationships counsellor Denise Knowles says co-operation is the key to a stress-free Christmas Day. “It is really important to share the load. If you are the only one expected to shoulder the entire burden, you can quickly start to feel resentful.”
Sharing can be fun and makes people feel part of the celebrations. “Everyone wants to feel involved at the end of the day, and are usually happy to be asked.” Even young children can play their part, organising party games, and clearing away wrapping paper.
Recognise the pressure points such as Feuding relatives: A house full of relatives can be wonderful fun and exciting, but it can also create a potential for serious family feuding.
Gladeana McMahon says that many people slip up because they expect relatives to be different just because it’s Christmas. “If Aunty Maud is difficult all year round, she will be at Christmas too. Expect her to criticise your bread sauce again this year, but use a skill called deflexion. Don’t rise to the bait.”
Compromise and mutual respect is key to getting along: “Avoid tensions by reaching a compromise on what the family wants to do rather than let one person have their way.”
If you know that certain relatives always fall out, take care not to invite them together. Perhaps one set of in laws can come for Christmas day and you can arrange to see another set for a Boxing day drink in the local pub. “Don’t set yourself up for failure before you have even got started,” she says.
Avoiding the situation altogether is fine too. “Be assertive,” says relationship counsellor Denise Knowles. “Make it clear in advance to people if you want to do something different this year. Try and give relatives plenty of notice so that they can organise something else.”
One study found that more people would rather go to the dentist than go Christmas shopping, and it is not hard to see why. Queues, crowds and endless present lists can make the experience daunting.
Annie Ashworth, author of Trade Secrets: Christmas, has this advice for making shopping a stress-free experience.
“When you are shopping, focus on one `group’ at a time. Get into children/man/auntie mode so that you’re in the right frame of mind.
Save up a day’s holiday at work or book a morning off in advance, and get your shopping done on a quiet Monday morning when the shops are less busy. Try booking a free personal shopper. They’ll know what’s in store and give you some handy advice.
If you are ordering presents by mail order, make certain the goods will arrive by Christmas – 28 days is the longest you will usually be expected to wait. Avoid the crowds and shop over the phone. Many companies will deliver by post to the recipient. Keep all your Christmas receipts in an envelope, so that you can find them easily.”
You always overspend:
Worrying about money can make you very anxious indeed over Christmas. This is going to be a more expensive time of year, but you can reduce the burden and stress of over spending.
Make a personal budget and sticking to it. If you use credit cards, pay off your balance.
Make sure all your priority bills are being paid, including mortgage, rent, gas, electricity, water, council tax and housekeeping
Try to avoid expensive credit offers in shops, no matter how tempting they may seem.
Buy presents you can afford. This can be hard with children begging for the latest must-have gadget, but a stressed-out parents is actually the last thing they want.
Christmas dinner disasters:
We don’t all have to be Nigellas or Delia Smiths at Christmas. A juicy turkey with all the trimmings is traditional fare, but it can take days of preparation.
If you find it all too much, opt for an easier menu like ready cooked ham, with lots of vegetables and creamy mashed potatoes. If you do want to create a festive feast, enlist the help of family and guests too.
Bored irritable kids:
Children love all the things that go along with Christmas, the pantomimes, Santa Claus, and of course the presents, but that doesn’t mean they take it all in the stride. Kids can get stressed at this time of year too, and bored as adults snooze in front of the TV.
“Take time to work out some games and activities for the kids, not just watching another DVD,” says Denise Knowles. “Kids get fed up and bored if they are cooped up in the house for too long, so take them out to stretch their legs. The whole family will benefit from the exercise.
Ask them to choose a boardgame and get everyone involved after lunch. Try out their new kites, bikes, cars, in the park.
These are the things that memories are made of, not only for the children but for parents, grannies and grandpas too.”
Frustrated, irritable you:
It is easy to put yourself at the bottom of the priority list as you struggle to make festive cheer for everyone else, but this is a mistake, according to Gladeana McMahon. “You need to be in good form to pull this off. Giving yourself time to relax is important in avoiding Christmas stress.”
Pour soothing aromatherapy oils into a bath and have a long soak.
Swap coffee and tea for camomile tea, which may aid relaxation.
Exercise is a great stress reliever. Take a walk every day rather than staying indoors throughout Christmas.
Laughter can relieve stress. Watch comedy on a DVD.
Take a break on your own- even if it’s only for 10 minutes. If desperate, you can always lock yourself in the loo!
Try some breathing exercises. These can be done at any time and can help you regain control.
Stroke a pet. Studies have shown that making a fuss of a pet can cause blood pressure to go down.
Alcohol consumption soars at Christmas. It might make you feel jolly for the short term, but drinking too much can actually add to your woes. Alcohol is a major depressant and a risk factor for a range of physical and mental health problems.
“This year try and monitor how much you drink,” says dietician Nigel Denby. “Stick to sensible drinking guidelines, which are 21 units a week for a man and 14 units for a woman. Also drink a glass of water after every glass of alcohol, and sip rather than gulp your Christmas tipple.
A growing body of research shows direct links between what we eat and how we feel. The average adult in the UK doubles their calorie intake over Christmas, to as much as 7000-8000 calories each day. Since most of that is in the shape of rich puddings, fatty sauces and sugary snacks, it is no wonder that the digestive system starts to complain, making us feel miserable.
Nigel Denby, dietician, says you should try and regulate your portion sizes and balance Christmas meals. “Don’t serve too much meat and dairy produce in the same meal. Use reduced fat dairy products, rather than sticking to those old favourites, double cream and clotted cream.”
Rich gooey puddings can be substituted for exotic fruit salads. Satsumas and figs should be placed next to the sweetie tin. “If you’re having a cheese board, include some low fat varieties, choose low fat biscuits such as Matzos and melba toast, and put out plenty of celery, grapes and apple. That way, you’ll probably eat less cheese.
Try to wait an hour after meals before attacking the Christmas ‘goodies’. It takes that long to register how full you are from the meal.”