Christmas is a time for family gatherings, pine trees with shiny decorations, tasty food, and the joys of giving. Why then can this period of the year trigger so many negative emotions? We see a rise in anxiety and depression around Christmas, and statistics show that often these go untreated, indicating that people are often struggling with their mental health by themselves.
One of the biggest contributors to Christmas stress is the daunting prospect of gathering around family and friends for that perfect Christmas Day. Especially for expatriates, families tend to be spread out globally across different continents, reducing the time spent together over the year. Christmas then becomes one of the big reuniting holidays. Any lengthy time apart requires family members to become reacquainted with each other and often these reunions are accompanied by differing expectations distinct personalities, unresolved issues, and people who know how to push each other’s buttons. Put into this mix the grandfather with outspoken opinions on homosexuality, the vegan cousin with gluten intolerance, and the aunt with the alcohol problem, and you are bound to have the ideal blend for explosive festivities.
The Perfect Christmas Pressure
As the host of the Christmas festivities, we may experience anticipatory anxiety as we prepare decorations, recipes, and activities, while wondering how to make everything perfect, peaceful, and memorable. As attendees, we may experience mixed emotions about seeing certain family members: Existing conflicts may either be dealt with or swept under the carpet, which can make Christmas feel, at best, tense and, at worst, fake. And when things do go wrong, a ruined Christmas Day bears more weight as we believe it will be remembered for years to come (‘Remember Christmas 2008, when Uncle Bob threw a plate at dad and then vomited into the dog bed?’).
Watching families and couples merrily soaking up the Christmas spirit can further be challenging for singles or people who have recently lost a love one, which can trigger loneliness and depression. Of course, we can also experience loneliness while surrounded by a crowd of people, when we are feeling disconnected or like we do not belong.
Low Christmas mood may be exacerbated by end-of-year reflections. When pondering our successes and failures, we may find we have not met our expectations. Traumatic events or losses throughout the year may hit home particularly strongly. We may magnify our shortcomings over our achievements. This process can create anxiety for the year to come guilt for falling below our standards, and even jealousy when comparing ourselves to others. At the same time, Christmas can be a financial stressor. We may perceive a loss of control over how our hard-earned cash is spent as our dollars seem to run through our fingers like sand while catering to the expectations of those around us for Christmas gifts, activities, events, travel, and food. Such perceived loss of control can move us from anxiety toward resentment, contributing to tension around the Christmas table.
So despite these risks to our mental health and wellbeing, how can we make sure that our Christmas remains what it should be: Relaxing, fun, and a time to reconnect with those who matter most to us?
Know your triggers
We can use the pre-Christmas period (right now!) for some self-exploration. We tend to know what sets us off, but do we know why? Delve a little deeper to identify the emotions you are feeling and the reasons behind your strong reactions to certain things. Often, our triggers tap into our fears formed by previous experiences to which we have developed coping strategies to protect ourselves. Some of these strategies, however, are no longer functional in the here-and-now and do us more harm than good.
Understanding ourselves and accepting our vulnerabilities can make us more aware early on when we are starting to get wound up: this gives us a moment of choice in which we can decide how to proceed, rather than letting our emotions drive our behaviours. Crucially, this puts us back in control and we are no longer just a tennis ball hit back and forth between the behaviours and emotions of other people.
Examining your expectations can make a big difference to your anxiety: What truly constitutes a perfect Christmas for you? How many of the things you just listed are fully in your control and how many can you merely influence? We cannot control how other people act or feel, and more often than not, we also do not have full control over all the logistics. At the end of Christmas Day people have usually eaten good food, exchanged thoughtful gifts, and shared a sense of community – This can be achieved regardless of whether the turkey was burned, the tree fell over or someone did not like their gift. Christmas Day is not ruined by the details, but more often than not by the way we react to these. Turn failures into a shared laugh and resolve them as a team to achieve a happy Christmas.
Make an action plan
Make your action plan for how to navigate challenges during the Christmas holidays: Once emotions run high, it becomes much harder to think of how to handle a situation. This plan can include response options for when we recognize we are beginning to get stressed, anxious or depressed, and activities to help us keep a good, healthy balance of mind, heart and body.
Make a plan for dealing with tension as it arises and emotions as they roll in during Christmas. This can include enhancing your awareness of when you start to feel low and then disengaging from the stressful situation or asserting your needs in a clear, kind way. Importantly, this can be applied to any conflict, including financial stress, or heated arguments. Practice empathy and understanding with those you around you while setting boundaries when needed. If you struggle with future anxiety, do not avoid the topic, but make specific, measurable, achievable, relevant goals with a timeline for the New Year (S.M.A.R.T. goals).
Often, Christmas throws us out of our routines, so add time for your regular activities and make space to engage with what relaxes you. These can be things you already do, things you often do not find time for, or new things you want to try. Whether it is exercise, painting, music, reading, cooking your comfort foods, meditating, walks in the countryside, spa treatments… This can also combat feelings of loneliness, if you consider volunteering, attending a community event, or taking yourself out for a special meal. We tend to see Christmas as stressful and busy, yet often we tend to over-plan and over-organize. Stepping back and prioritizing is paramount to making sure we enjoy Christmas without letting pressure get the better of us.
Christmas need not be one or two people preparing a wonderful time for everyone else: Family and friends can all be involved in the arrangements. When you work together to create a festive environment can create a sense of bonding. It also gives people a mutual focus, which can lift everyone’s moods. Notably, you can set a few guidelines for this and have someone available for managing or diffusing tension when needed. Create a goal: making the children happy, trying creative foods, donating for charity, or acting compassionately.
Christmas can induce anxiety, stress and low moods. However, there are simple measures you can put in place to make sure your Christmas 2018 becomes an enjoyable, warm experience, leaving you on a well-deserved high of positivity to take with you into an exciting, successful 2019.