Stress Management for Christmas Holidays


The Christmas holidays can be stressful, the relatives, food to prepare and organize, cold weather, presents to buy, packing the car, driving round the country, cold weather and now even endless Brexit conversations and arguments.

It’s not surprising that many people feel overwhelmed and exhausted and somehow the Christmas message gets completely lost. 

Here are a few ideas to help manage stress over this intense period. 

Focus on becoming aware of our own feelings by thinking about the physical sensations we’re having. This helps to stop us from reacting unthinkingly to events. Many people are not aware of the level of stress we’re under, and then crack when something quite minor happens because it puts us ‘over the edge’. The Christmas holidays are very stressful, so if we’re also working, and have financial worries or other family problems, life can seem very demanding.

By becoming more aware of the physical sensations in our body we have a measure of how stressed we are, helping us to think about how to dispel the stress. I notice myself that when I get stressed, my right eyelid begins to tremor, I start to be a little irrational and bad-tempered, and feel my heart rate increase.

In my sessions with parents who are very stressed, I make the analogy of a bottle with a cork in it filled up with lots of feeling from the day – for example, could not find my key to the car (frustrated), the battery in my phone was flat (annoyed), they sent the wrong Christmas present (angry),my children made me late for work because they weren’t ready (fuming), the train was delayed (exhausted), I will never have time to write my Christmas cards (upset) and then when finally your partner tells you they have to work late, the cork comes out as you explode with fury. 

One way of stopping this build-up of emotion is to let the feelings out slowly throughout the day – for example, telephoning a friend to say you’re having an awful day. Some people find mindfulness exercises or concentrating on their breathing can help them remain calm.

Using the image of a thermometer as a guide, it is crucial to realize that if you’re red-hot at 100 degrees, then you’ll respond in an unthoughtful way, and it makes much more sense to respond in a calm way when your own thermometer has gone down to 50 degrees. This can stop situations escalating in unhelpful ways.

Knowing a little bit about the how the brain works can be helpful in these situations too. The brain is made up of three systems the amygdala that controls the basic life sustaining activities and is sometimes known as the reptilian brain 

The limbic system which mainly concerned with emotions and the flight fight response when we feel under attack or super stressed and finally the cortex which is the rational thinking planning brain the controls abstract thought, imagination, empathy and reasoning.

When we go into a stress reaction the amygdala and limbic system has taken over and secrets the hormones cortisol and adrenaline and so we go into flight, fight, freeze mode and can’t be logical. When we are in this state we are in danger of damaging relationships because we often say things without thinking. The secret is to give yourself at least 20 minutes to let the stress hormones get dissipated and either ask a friend to listen to you, tell yourself to postpone thinking about the stressful thought or have a hot bath to relax. 

After 20 minutes the cortex will have again kicked in and you can be rational again.

It is also helpful to think about what triggers our stress and why this is so. The reasons could lie deep in our own family script from past generations. Some ways of relieving stress are exercise, listening to music, using visualizations, reading, a special scent, or cooking, for example. We all have our own stress-busters which are useful to deploy so that we don’t unintentionally destroy relationships.

Our physical health is intimately connected to our emotional health, so it’s important to try and stay physically well. Sometimes if you’re feeling down, if you decide to stand up tall, breathe deeply and put your shoulder back, just these small adjustments can improve how you feel and think.

I wish you a happy stress free (or low stress) Christmas.

Caroline Penney is a mother, grandmother and family therapist. 

You can find more skills in The Parenting Toolkit: Simple Steps to Happy and Confident Children published by Hawthorn Press. Illustrations by Kate Hajducka.