Christmas. What comes to mind? Candy canes? Carolling children? Wonderful time spent with loved ones? Those are among the hallmarks that can make the end of the year feel special or magical. But as many of us will have experienced, the ideal image of the festive season (fa-la-la-la-la) ignores a whole lot of factors that can make December anything but merry. For many of us, this month of events, apocalyptic deadlines, gift-buying, food preparation and family dynamics ranges from mildly stressful to positively frazzling. Why?
A common theme that anchors many negative festive season experiences is pressure. Pressure to perform extra tasks in addition to ordinary duties. Pressure to accept every invitation. Pressure to have everything done on time. Pressure to uphold gift-giving traditions even if it causes financial strain. Pressure to live up to real or imagined expectations and standards in cooking, appearance or conversation. Implicitly, this deluge of extra pressures means we have less time for ourselves or self-care, which can make us less resilient and more vulnerable to extra pressures (double-whammy).
So how can you reset the festive season and experience it as a celebration rather than a burden? Our psychologists have put together these silly season survival tips.
- Rethink tradition. So you’ve always attended two family functions in a day. Despite the immense stress, that’s just how it’s done. But since such a packed schedule is probably similarly stressful for all concerned, why not suggest switching it up? For instance, scheduling one family on a different day. Similarly with gift-giving. Do you need to buy a gift for every person? What about instead each donating a certain amount to a chosen charity and reading out your charity at present time?
- Practise saying ‘no’. While you may feel pressured to accept every invitation, you probably actually don’t need to. Rather than automatically saying ‘yes’, carefully consider each invitation. Is it the night after another event? Will attending compromise your alertness at work or ability to care for your family? Will not attending adversely affect an important relationship (if attending a client’s work party will be beneficial, prioritise attending). When saying “no”, you don’t need to give a detailed ‘excuse’. Just politely decline due to other commitments.
- Manage expectations. It can be easy to fall into the trap of assuming we must meet others’ expectations - even if doing so may cause financial strain. For instance, buying the kids three presents each or catering family lunch with seafood. If meeting real or imagined standards is likely to cause or exacerbate financial stress, try managing expectations back to a level that is more comfortable and realistic for you.
- Monitor your emotions. Difficult family dynamics (and people) often come to the fore during festive functions and can be especially fraught when alcohol consumption is involved. If you experience conflict or difficulty with a particular person, try to keep your interactions light and avoid contentious or inflammatory topics. Also avoid making negative comments or remarks to others in the group. If you feel your anxiety or anger rising, remove yourself from the situation by stepping outside or going into the bathroom and breathe deeply. Return when you feel calm.
- Prioritise self-care. It may sound impossible to fit in regular exercise and activities such as meditation or reading during December, but consider that prioritising your own wellbeing will help you to withstand the pressures of the season and put you in a better position to give to others and celebrate. Use “no” practice to make time for exercise, preparing healthy meals and sitting down to eat them mindfully and engaging in relaxing or enjoyable activities such as reading, meditation or taking a bath. Also make a point of keeping a consistent sleep schedule of approximately eight hours per night.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of the festive season, consider consulting a psychologist, who can help with tips and skills to manage stress and anxiety.