Dealing With Christmas Stress

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

Christmas can be stressful financially, emotionally, socially and physically. Christmas stress is very real for many people, so you are nit alone if you feel this way.

Family Stress at Christmas

We all know that we are supposed to feel joyous, relaxed and happy “in the moment” on Christmas day.

Sure, you’ve worked hard during the festive season to make sure everything will be perfect. All the work and stress will all be worth it, right?

But what if all that pressure for perfection threatens to derail your plans?

What if your Christmas stress levels are through the roof?

Christmas stress - woman drinking tea in front of Christmas tree

What if this feels far from the “most wonderful time of the year” right now?

In this article my aim is to soothe your Christmas stress. I will give you some practical in-the-moment and preventative strategies to ease your anxiety and help you flourish in the festive season.

Sources of Christmas Stress

The sources of Christmas stress may be external or internal.

External factors include wider societal issues like the economic crisis, and family issues and dynamics.

Internal factors are those within us which contribute to our Christmas stress, like perfectionism or negative expectations such as “this will be a difficult time of year”.

family looking at their Christmas tree

According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, nearly half of all women in the USA experience heightened stress during the holidays.

Although this was not a recent survey (it was done in 2006) I would put money on these figures being the same or higher this year.

I would also put money on a bet that this applies to women not only the US but also in the UK, Canada, Australia, and many other countries.

Many men will be affected too.

Why Christmas is so Stressful?

The stress of the holiday season tends to be caused by a whole host of stresses coming together as a perfect storm, such as:

  1. Financial worry.
  2. Travel arrangements.
  3. Family dynamics: Who is invited from which branches of the family and how will they get along?
  4. Overwhelm at the sheer scale of organisation that often falls to one person.
  5. The pressure to have a perfect family gathering which society puts on us.

Holiday stress is incredibly common.

Take comfort that your feelings of stress are normal, given the circumstances.

Why is Christmas So Exhausting?

One of the reasons Christmas is so exhausting is because of the massive to-do list which often leads to multi-tasking and overwhelm.

This puts a great strain on our brain and nervous system, triggering the stress response.

two Christmas lanterns

On top of your own overwhelm, if you are a parent or you have other caring responsibilities, it’s likely that you also feel responsible for others during the Christmas holidays.

You may feel responsible for their happiness. It’s exhausting to have to think about other people’s needs when you are also so over-committed.

Not only does Christmas stress cause anxiety by triggering the stress response in the body. Feeling constantly anxious and overwhelmed can be highly unpleasant and also depressing.

Christmas stress can also exacerbate seasonal affective disorder if you live in an area of the northern hemisphere where shorter, darker days are the norm at Christmas.

Why Do People Struggle at Christmas?

During the Christmas season we put a lot of pressure on ourselves for things to be “just right”, such as family gatherings.

Sometimes, the reality just can’t live up to our expectations and this may be beyond our control.

We are also thrown into daily patterns which are very different from our normal routines, and can be chaotic.

This can be deeply unsettling.

Over the Christmas period, try lowering your expectations.

Keep your plans for Christmas time as simple as possible. Write down two or three simple “goals” and celebrate each one.

For example, instead of trying to purchase from a complex and expensive list of presents for each relative, plan to make the same home made gift and “batch” them, e.g. a jar of home made cookies tied with a ribbon.

This may cut out one or more stressful shopping trips.

Think about simplifying and pairing down your usual stressful routines.

Why Does Christmas Give Me Anxiety?

One of the reasons Christmas gives you anxiety is that your brain is overloaded. Think of a “stress cup”. Each item on your to-do list and each little problem you have to navigate fills the cup a little bit more. Our cups often overflow in the run-up to the Christmas holidays.

Christmas stress cup diagram

An overflowing cup means your brain is at full capacity. It can’t take any more.

So, it tips into “survival mode”. It feels so swamped that in essence, it decides that your survival is at stake.

Levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the body increase.

You become hyper-alert, on the lookout for danger.

This affects your sleep and mood, making you more irritable.

Managing Stress at Christmas

Let’s reflect on on how you can minimise your stress levels this Christmas.

The amount of stress you experience can not only affect your enjoyment of this time of celebration, but those around you as well.

a family exchanging gifts at Christmas

Here are my four key strategies for managing stress at Christmas, which I will expand upon below:

  1. Challenge Your Assumptions About Christmas Stress
  2. Use Visualisations to Help Beat Christmas Stress
  3. Practise In the Moment Strategies to Handle Stress
  4. Simplify Your Usual Holiday Plans

What To Do About Stress at Christmas Time

1. Challenge Your Assumptions About Christmas Stress

Stressful situations are almost inevitable over the Christmas period, but that doesn’t mean that Christmas in general needs to be a stressful time. Check in with yourself. Do you hold any of these beliefs (or similar)? Are they necessarily true?

  • Christmas is stressful.
  • I won’t enjoy Christmas because I will be too busy and stressed.
  • I need to make sure everyone else has a good time at Christmas.

Gently challenge these assumptions. Are they really true? This make help you feel a whole lot better.

Writing down your assumptions can be more powerful than challenging them in your head. Next, find an alternative thought with which to replace it.

For example, “I won’t enjoy Christmas because I will be too busy and stressed” may become, “I will try to balance my stress this Christmas by taking some peaceful moments to myself.”

2. Use Visualisations to Help Beat Christmas Stress

It can help for you to visualise peaceful or happy moments, exactly as you would like them to turn out.

If you know what your ideal moments would look like, you are more likely to (consciously or unconsciously) be able to create them.

Sit quietly with your eyes closed.

Set a 5 minute timer.

Take a long, deep breath, all the way into your belly. Then breath out very slowly.

Pick one of the following scenes, and take time to imagine all the finer details of your ideal moment.

For example if you are visualising a happy Christmas dinner: Which family members can you see around the table?

What sounds can you hear?

Is there music?

Is there laughter?

How will you feel?

What will you see around you?

  • Waking up on Christmas morning
  • Eating Christmas dinner with your family
  • Gathering around the Christmas tree to open presents together.
  • Opening a Christmas gift from a loved one.

When the timer goes off take another long, deep breath, before continuing with your day.

Follow these simple steps each day during the Christmas season for a more peaceful Christmas.

3. Practise “In the Moment” Strategies for Managing Christmas Stress

What should you do if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed with Christmas stress “in the moment”?

  1. Remove yourself from the stressful situation for a minute or two if you can.
  2. Soften your shoulders.
  3. Soften your jaw and face.
  4. Take a very deep, slow breath in for around 5 seconds. Make sure your breathe all the way into your belly.
  5. Breath out very slowly for 5-7 seconds.
  6. Repeat two more slow, deep breaths.
  7. Remember that all feelings pass.
  8. Take a minute to notice your sensory surroundings: What can you feel on your skin? What can you see? What can you hear?

Once you have gone through these steps your nervous system should have calmed down a great deal and you should no longer feel a high level of emotional distress. If you need extra time, it’s no problem. Go through the list one more time from the beginning.

Christmas stress: Managing overwhelm in the moment

4.Simplify Your Usual Holiday Plans

Just because you have always done things in certain ways during the Christmas holidays, doesn’t mean these are the best ways.

Take time to reflect.

What can you simplify this year? You won’t be alone.

In this time of austerity, cutting back on the gaudy glitz and glamour of Christmas is not only sensible but may also be a better fit for your current values and life plans. 

How does Christmas Affect Mental Health?

We all need to pay special attention to our mental health during the festive period. It’s an unusual time when everyday routines go out the window.

We can be affected more than usual by stress and burnout, loneliness or painful memories.

We often forget about self-care because we are so focused on supporting others or making plans.

Once the Christmas period is over, even if we have had a wonderful Christmas many of us suffer a dip in mood. We may feel a sense of anti-climax and not having anything to look forward to any more now that the bright lights of Christmas have come down and the decorations have been put away. The warmth of summer can feel very far off and the long, dark winter stretches out ahead of us.

We can support our mental health by ensuring we maintain some supportive social contact during and after the Christmas break, but especially after.

Do you have a supportive friend you could arrange to meet for coffee with?

Which family members can you feel totally relaxed and comfortable with?

Positive social support is one of the strongest predictors of positive mental health.

Preventing Christmas Stress and Anxiety

It’s unrealistic to expect no stress at all during the festive period.

But how can you ensure you don’t have too much stress, so that you can actually enjoy some of the Christmas spirit?

If you know you are prone to stress and anxiety, plan well ahead.

Here are some tips:

  • Ask for help. Remember, friends and family generally love to help. You may not be used to asking for help, but get out of your comfort zone and try it. Receive the help gratefully. One day, you will b able to “pay if forward” and help someone else in their time of need.
  • Make it a team effort. Rope your partner, children or other family members into your planning wherever you can. Don’t assume that everything is “your” job. You might be surprised at their willingness to help.
  • Make a visual planner. Creating a visual plan always removes a sense of overwhelm. I like to use colourful lists and little pictures to plan out what I need to do, when. There is not a right or wrong way to make a visual Christmas planner. This great article about Christmas planning contains an offer of a free planner!

Financial Stress at Christmas

There is no shame in needing to cut back on your spending. The financial burden of Christmas can be huge, but it doesn’t have to be.

I know this is easier said than done, especially if you have children.

But remember, you are human.

You can only do your best. Doing your best for your children doesn’t mean creating debt in order to give them more or bigger Christmas presents. This can end up adding extra pressure both emotionally and financially.

You would be surprised at how wise children can be, when it comes to understanding that they may not be able to have that toy or game they really want.

It’s a cliché, but they really do want and need your time more than “things”.

Find an age appropriate way to explain the situation without going too in-depth about adult financial worries.

You might like to try the books recommended in this article.

Christmas stress: sad child in front of Christmas tree

There are some helpful general guides to managing financial worry at Christmas on the internet.

However, if you live in the UK and you need direct support, contact your local Citizens’ Advice Bureau. They will be able to tell you about local organisations and services who can help you. They can give you expert advice about getting help with bills and the cost of living.

You can also get support from Step Change, the debt charity.

If you live in the USA, this page about debt support may be helpful.

Family Stress at Christmas

So far we have focused on your own stress.

Let’s think about how you can support others with stress, even if you are feeling stressed yourself.

The more everyone can feel supported by one another, the more this will be a time of joy where you can spend quality time making happy memories.

Firstly, try to model calm when you can. My article on how to stay calm with your child is a great starting point containing some practical strategies.

Secondly, try to have ring-fenced, pre-planned time each day where everyone can be together to engage in one Christmas-orientated task.

During that ring-fenced time (perhaps an hour or 90 minutes), try to stay in the moment and enjoy the sensations, staying present with your family members.

For example, putting up the Christmas decorations together, or putting out treats for Santa on Christmas Eve.

You may not have much time, but make the time you do have high quality.

For those precious minutes you will feel the Christmas spirit together – even if you go your separate ways for the rest of the day.

Christmas Family Stress Advice

If you follow my four strategies above, you should find that Christmas stress feels more manageable. Here’s a list of further tips and things to be aware of:

  • Don’t believe what you see on social media if it looks look everyone else is having the perfect Christmas. What matters is that you get clear on your own values and priorities.
  • Manage your energy levels. Take plenty of breaks.
  • Watch your alcohol consumption, even though it can be tempting to drink more to relax.
  • Recognise that there is some “toxic positivity” around the idea of Christmas. We feel so much pressure to talk about only positive emotions and positive things, buy the perfect gift etc.
  • Even if you are crazily busy, it’s a good idea to do some physical activity each day. Regular exercise releases stress and is essential for mental wellbeing and a well-functioning immune system.
stressed woman using her phone with Christmas tree behind her

If You Need More Support

If your stress and anxiety feel unbearable, speak to your doctor. They will be able to advise you about how to get a referral to a mental health expert.

Professional help will enable you to understand the main sources of your stress and take steps to minimise or remove them.

The Mental Health Foundation lists some top tips and sources of further support for adults in the UK at Christmas and new year.

If you need urgent help, there are several UK organisations which offer helplines. Don’t suffer in silence.

In the USA, you can get support from Crisis Text Line.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.

Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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