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.
Let’s talk about the lockdown paradox. For months we’ve lamented limitations that curtailed our usual freedoms. Many of us will have felt frustrated about not being able to make our own life choices or follow through with plans. It’s become common practice to sit by the TV every Sunday, wishing for permission to return to normal life -- from going to work to weekend cafe brekkies and watching the kids play sport. So why, now that many restrictions have been lifted, are some of us feeling ambivalent about resuming activities we so desperately missed? Why, when we’re allowed to go shopping or meet friends for lunch, would some of us prefer to stay home?
In effect, lockdown and its aftermath emphasise a conflict between two sides of the human condition. One, we’re incredibly adaptable and resilient (it’s quite remarkable that so many of us have managed to work from home and oversee home schooling). Two, we’re creatures of habit (some personalities favour routine more than others, but our brains like predictability). It makes sense, then, that many of us have adapted to the parameters of COVID restrictions. We may even quite like aspects such as making home-cooked meals, wearing comfy clothes and not having to make conversation. Conversely, aspects of our ‘old lives’ may seem foreign or even a bit scary. We may also now feel pressure to do everything we haven’t been able to at once (schedule six lunches, book a holiday, catch up with every single person in your phone book, visit loved ones, etc).
For others, there are uncertainties that make it hard to form a picture of what our ‘new normal’ is or might be. Our jobs may have gone or changed. Our financial situation may be different. In such cases, the end of lockdown may feel confronting. You may feel pressure to figure it all out. There may be fears about paying the rent or mortgage. It can be easy to get lost in what-ifs. If you’re experiencing trepidation about moving forward, our provisional psychologist Dani has put together these tips to ease the transition.
- Take it easy. Just when we’ve got used to ‘lockdown life’, we may feel a pressure, obligation or urgency to embrace our new freedoms in one fell swoop -- from dining out to visiting friends and relatives and booking holidays. Remind yourself that there is no external deadline. It’s not a competition or race. Be patient with yourself and resume activities at a pace with which you feel comfortable.
- Focus on positive changes. The unprecedented challenges and changes imposed by COVID can make it tempting to dwell on what we’ve lost or sacrificed (e.g. missed time with loved ones or job opportunities). When you feel yourself ruminating, make a conscious effort to flip the coin. Compile a list of positive effects, such as increased contact with loved ones via video link or greater appreciation of relationships. Perhaps you’ve gained new skills or realised interests or passions such as art or cooking or gardening. Look for the good.
- Take back control. Many of us will now face many new uncertainties and anxieties. We may face the challenge of finding a new job or even a new career. We may have to reassess our financial position and lifestyle. What previously seemed secure may now feel as though it’s up in the air. To combat the effects of such unknowns and restore a sense of agency and stability despite question marks, try to channel your focus and energy into what you can control. Maybe that’s rebuilding valued relationships, focusing on helping children with their academic work or undertaking a course to enhance your value in the workplace.
If you’re experiencing anxiety or struggling with your goals or direction for post-lockdown life, consider consulting a psychologist, who can help you to manage thoughts and beliefs that amplify anxiety or clarify your values, goals and strengths.