We all have an image of what Christmas and the festive season will be like. The immediate and extended family spending time over a lovely meal with everyone full of joy, goodwill, love and good humour. Everyone has put their troubles behind them and are focusing on having a good time. All the children are happy, really thankful for the gifts and blissfully playing with their friends and cousins; all sharing their toys and presents.
What a lovely image!! But I wonder how realistic it is?
Christmas is one of the most stressful times of year and that’s saying something given the amount of stress and challenge many people have experienced in 2015.
We know the January/early February period is one of Lifeline’s busiest times and there is evidence indicating the number of divorce applications increase in January. So I guess at least lawyers enjoy the season!
While the festive season is based around joy and love, it can create anxiety; at times creating feelings of unrealistic expectations, regret, loneliness and even depression.
So given that no matter how hard we try we can’t avoid the stress of the festive season, what are some strategies we can apply to survive this period?
I believe it comes down to three – managing expectations, boundaries and feelings and emotions.
What are your expectations of the Christmas/New Year period? We all have an image in our head of what the Christmas/New Year period should be like. Unfortunately reality often differs from this view. We need to keep this “expectation gap”, i.e. between what we expect and what it is – as narrow as possible – we need to keep the expectations of Christmas and the festive season as realistic as possible.
At the neuroscience level, if we create unrealistic expectations, all types of physiological reactions can be generated – anxiety to make sure it is all it can be, disappointment when it isn’t, and a sense of failure or even guilt when the reality doesn’t match the vision.
If we are not careful in managing these expectations, it can create within us a “flight or fight” response with the resultant release of the hormone cortisol – the stress inducing hormone. Once released, all the negative impacts, a sense of stress, anxiety and irritability, can occur.
So what are your expectations of this coming Christmas season and have you shared them with people in your world?
Hopefully by now, you have already had the conversation about the issue of gifts – who buys who what, what’s acceptable and what’s not and to what value?
I think it is important that this conversation be held within the family as it is a family issue. Can a “secret Santa” concept be applied within the family?
In relation to the subject of gifts, make sure a budget is set and whatever you do stick to it. I already observe articles about the implications of going into debt to meet yours and other’s expectations. This debt will continue into 2016 and could be another source of stress that you really don’t need.
One of my key messages in relation to well-being and resilience strategies is the need to look after yourself first in order to look after your family, friends and community. If we don’t set and maintain boundaries, we run the risk of breaking this most important rule.
What are your boundaries this Christmas season? What are your boundaries to things such as pre-Christmas functions – which ones are you going to and why? How much will you drink and when? Who’s going to drive?
Quite often people rush around from function to function because they think that is what’s expected of them and that they need to be seen at those functions. The result is often people don’t enjoy themselves and even when they are there they are not totally “present”. What’s the point of running around not really enjoying yourself? Maybe identify some key functions you really need to go to and enjoy being there with people in your world that you like sharing time with.
I think there are some “mandatory” (for want of a better word) functions to attend – school breakups, children concerts and Christmas carols for example, but there are so many other discretionary functions that you don’t really need to go to and could even catch up with those people post-Christmas and have a much more enjoyable time with them.
Set boundaries and stick to them. Stepping outside these boundaries may lead to emotional and physical exhaustion resulting in many people not really enjoying the experience and wishing for it all be over. I’m pretty sure that’s not the purpose of the festive season!
Managing Emotions and Feelings.
Family get-togethers can be great. They can also be totally dysfunctional! There is that old saying that you can pick your friends but not your family. Getting families together sometimes raises deeply held resentments and emotions (and even conflict) over unresolved issues.
Alcohol, lack of sleep and long days can be a volatile mixture!
In dealing with family tensions, my advice is to remember the “reason for the season” and mostly it’s about the children. Think about how you can make Christmas a time of creating happy memories for people and put aside our own issues for their benefit.
In her book Love 2.0, Barbara Fredrickson describes love not as an emotion or feeling but rather as a series of micro-moments – those micro-moments that we remember, treasure and gain great pleasure from. I wonder what micro-moments we can create for our kids to remember. Just think back to our own childhood around Christmas and think of those moments that we really remember.
Don’t count the moments this Christmas, make the micro moments count!
The other thing about emotions and feelings is for many people, the festive season can generate a real sense of deep loneliness and a sense of loss. These include “empty nesters”, the elderly and individuals who are grieving the loss of a loved one, of lost relationships and lost friendships. Many people can be feeling particularly vulnerable at the festive season.
If this is you, one way of dealing with this feeling is to be open about your feelings of loneliness – but don’t expect people to share your feelings or take responsibility for your loneliness.
My advice is to do something! It is the old “choice and consequence” balance.
If you think that this Christmas time you will be experiencing a sense of loneliness than do some about it NOW. Maybe reach out to people you may have not seen from a while and organise to spend some time with them over the Christmas or festive season.
Better still, put your hand up and volunteer! There are so many reasons why volunteering is good for your emotional and psychological well-being. And I’m sure there are many organisations and many people who would really welcome some assistance in their activities over this period of time. As Winston Churchill once said, “We make a living from what we do – but we make a life from what we give”.
Give something this Christmas. The choice of action is all yours and completely under your control – and in most instances, it won’t cost a thing!
There is a flipside to this loneliness issue and that is there are many people in our community who may be by themselves through work and family circumstances.
Why not consider having an “Orphan Christmas” and invite them to your place over that period. They can bring their own food and alcohol so it need not be an expensive activity. Wouldn’t that make a difference to someone’s Christmas experience!
Remember that if you are going to feel lonely, don’t put yourself in situations where your triggers can be pushed. If you are going to be by yourself and feeling lonely, consider staying off and away from social media e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn etc. Seeing other people’s “happy snaps” may not work for you.
Finally remember self-care. Remember to breathe and relax. Be mindful this season. The greatest present you can give people in the festive season is your physical and emotional presence. Be present and engaged. Remember the world won’t end on December 25, 2015 – or I hope not! Life goes on after Christmas so stay healthy, eat well, drink plenty of water, exercise and sleep well so you are ready to go in 2016.
Merry Christmas to you all. We trust you have a safe, happy and meaningful Christmas and a fantastic New Year and we look forward to working with you in 2016. All the very best.