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Holiday Stress #2 – The Zen of Managing Christmas

holiday stressLast week we spoke with Harley Street psychotherapist Michelle Bassam about her best tips for surviving holiday stress. From mixed marriages where one partner doesn’t celebrate, to holiday breakups that seem to happen in droves on Boxing Day, she suggested some helpful tactics for surviving the season.

This week we look at six more causes of holiday stress followed by some new Christmas survival solutions to make sure you find the balance you need to not just get by, but to enjoy yourself, too.



Christmas is a time when we often overlook our own desires in favour of the “common good”, with the family unit gobbling up all our focus and energy and our typical daily structure radically shifted. This can feel good at first, like ‘Christmas Spirit’. But we can totally forget to recognise individual differences, feel pressured to conform, feel lost without our routine, and suddenly have a household awash with holiday stress and disagreements.


Plan some ‘me time’ into your diary even if it’s just a few hours to pamper yourself, read a good book, or go for a workout – exercise has the dual benefit of helping you release steam.

It is also worth remembering that those around you might savour a little space to “do their own thing”, both leading up to and on the big day. Give individuals room to opt out and exercise their independence. For example, try dropping the strict agenda hidden under the name of ‘tradition’ and suggest more then one activity. Perhaps some people want to go for a walk and others would like to watch the television specials? If you’re really brave, set a new tradition entirely by scheduling in a one-hour ‘time out’ for everyone during the day.


Christmas stressAnother big cause of holiday stress is that we get put back into the ‘box’ of our old family roles. Ever told yourself that you would not display a childish temper with your Mother this year, even if she does blame you again for the turkey going wrong when she was the one who cooked it…. only to find yourself having already lost it before dinner even begins?

All of our growth and maturity is overlooked as old patterns of behaviour are expected or thrust upon us. Often we find ourselves unable to avoid the lure of just slotting back into these well-worn patterns, even if it means taking up the old role we so hate of the family saviour, the great hope or the black sheep.


A change of landscape. Renting a cottage together at Christmas rather than spending the holidays in the parental home, or even just having Christmas at a different household, can have a positive effect.

A measured talk in advance with the person you most engage in old patterns with can help. It doesn’t need to be heavy, and it should not be accusatory. There’s a chance they’d be greatly relieved to change the pattern, too. Ask for their ideas on how this Christmas everyone can honour each other as their grownup selves, then listen properly, keeping an open mind. Sometimes just raising the issue alone can start to create changes in the dynamic. (If you worry you can’t talk without losing your temper, try our ten tips to manage anger and reduce conflict).

Next year, foster one-on-one relationships with individual family members during the year to make things different next Christmas. This gives you the chance to get to know each other in the here-and-now, rather than relying on old ways of relating.


As people grow older, Christmas increasingly becomes a season of nostalgia, of reflecting not just on the past twelve months but of reaching further and further back into a land of memories. The closing week of December is one of the few times of the year when we can recall exactly where we were, what we were doing and, most significantly, who we were with at the corresponding moment in decades past. This can leave us spiralling into poignant memories, especially memories of absence and separation and “what ifs”, that leave the present looking not so savoury.


Mindfulness can do wonders because it’s focus is to bring us into the present. Try a two-minute mindfulness break whenever you find yourself wondering off.

Gratitude Lists are things we have all heard of but that’s only because they work. Starting each day writing down five things you have to be thankful for in the here and now, no matter how small, can really frame your day in a new, more positive light. So get writing, even if it only is about the delicious chocolates you were given or that you had a nice night’s sleep. (If your memories are ruining your sleep, then you might want to be grateful instead for our top Tips for Insomnia).

Stress and anxietyIssue #4 – THE SEA OF LOSS

For some, the holidays can be a time of acute loss and longing. Granting yourself permission to mourn or “re-mourn” (for grief ebbs and flows rather than arriving in numbered stages) may be an unhappy, but essential, element of Christmas.


If you think you are going to struggle with grief this Christmas then now might be the time to seek a therapist for professional insight. A qualified counsellor will explore your feelings with you, suggest coping strategies for dealing with bereavement and offer emotional support.

Try not to choose to be always alone, even if you are convinced this suits you better. Sometimes being around others who might need our help in the here and shift us out of our sadness, even if just for a few hours.

Issue # 5 – LONELINESS

Not everyone has a family to be with or a partner to share the season with, or even if we do we can find ourselves overseas or alone in another city because of work. Being all by ourselves when the rest of the world seems together and happy and messages of the joy of having loved ones are pushed on us by the media makes this time of year the hardest for many.


Keep busy. Although it is rarely a good idea to bury your feelings entirely, filling your schedule can be an effective way of bridging the Christmas break and countering feelings of loneliness. And one of the best ways to meet people – and improve your self-esteem at the same time – is to volunteer your services: and are just two of the organisations that seek volunteers.

Be a little selfish. When we are mired in loneliness it is not the time to put others needs before our own as this can just add stress and anxiety to our already vulnerable state. It’s important to be a little selfish and really prioritise what works for you at this fragile time. If you are asked round to someone’s for Christmas dinner and you think being around their happy family will make you feel worse, then don’t feel you have to say yes. And do things that make you feel good, no matter what others think. If you want to spend all of Christmas cruising Boxing Day sales online for things to buy for yourself, then do it.

Christmas StressGet some fresh air. Nature in all it’s glory has been proven to uplift moods, and exercise releases endorphins, so hit your local park for a walk. Why not borrow a dog, and enjoy some company and unconditional love while you are at it? Anyone is grateful for a helping hand this time of year so you’d be giving your pet-owning neighbour a gift at the same time. If pets really make you feel better, consider a holiday housesit, it’s a time of year when many people are desperate for a pet nanny.


Not only can we overspend then feel panicky, spiralling into depression about debt, we can feel upset and ashamed if others in our family have more to spend then we do, or guilty if we can’t get our children as much as they want. Rows can break out in families when a limit is agreed on and someone doesn’t pay heed.


For starters, communicate. Sometimes if one person is brave enough to suggest that everyone put a limit on gifts it can be met with great relief. And if you know a certain person never listens, work with others to make it clear to that person really realises that it will truly upset others if they don’t participate. Very few people want to upset loved ones by their thoughtlessness.

Make a plan and stick to it. Plan what you are going to buy, where you might pick it up, and exactly how much you will spend, saving you from impulse shopping. And also look at your diary and slot in enough time to actually make the purchases at all, scheduling those times in pen so you take it seriously. If you are a terrible one for the ‘Christmas Eve dash’ you might want to read our Guide to Chronic Procrasination.

Have you enjoyed this article? Do you have some funny Christmas scenarios you’d like to share, or a top tip we’ve missed about managing holiday stress? Comment below, we love hearing from you!


(Images credits: Joriel “Joz” Jimenez, sⓘndy° , Doxieone, Brian, Martin Fisch, ussiegall)
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    Dr. Sheri Jacobson


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