‘Tis the season to be jolly…’  A study published in December 2014 by Ipsos MORI found that 5% of the UK are very stressed about Christmas preparations and 15% are fairly stressed. This equates to 20% of the population being stressed about a holiday whose foundations are based on peace and goodwill! While Christmas can undoubtedly be one of the most enjoyable times of the year, the demands on our time, energy and bank accounts can take a bit of a toll on our mental and physical health.

One of the main definitions of stress is “emotional discomfort caused by a fear that we will be unable to meet expectations”. Christmas seems to be one of those classic times where this is the case. There are emotional expectations; “will the family fight as much as usual?”, financial expectations, “where will I find the money I need for all those gifts?”, and there are physical expectations, “how will I get it all done in time?”

Seasonal stress can also have short-term impacts, according to Nutritionist from Bio-Kult Claire Barnes.  She explained: “When we experience stress, our blood sugar levels increase, our immune function becomes altered, and our digestive and reproductive systems are temporarily suppressed.  “Continually feeling stressed makes us more susceptible to colds and flu, infections and even more serious illnesses such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, anxiety and depression.”

Balancing the demands of shopping, parties, family obligations, and house guests may contribute to feelings of being overwhelmed and increased pressure.  People who do not view themselves as typically stressed may still develop stress responses, such as:

  • Headaches
  • Excessive drinking
  • Over-eating
  • Insomnia

Others may experience sadness after New Year’s Day. This can result from built-up expectations and disappointments from the previous year, coupled with stress and fatigue.

To try and combat the symptoms of pressure and fatigue over this festive period, try these Advent tips for coping with Christmas:

  1. Eat right – It can be tempting to snack on foods high in sugar when the weather is colder and we want a quick energy boost. Unfortunately, this can lead to increasing blood sugar levels. When our levels suddenly dip again, we’re left craving another sugary pick-me-up or stimulant such as caffeine. Instead, stick to regular meals containing healthy proteins, such as oily fish, grass-fed meats or lentils. Slow cooking food is great for a warming and easy to digest meal, ready in time for your return from a late-night Christmas shop.
  2. Watch the festive tipples – Many tend to overindulge on alcohol at this time of year which increases the body’s toxic load. Try to keep alcohol levels moderate, drink water in-between and ideally alongside eating a meal which will reduce some of the negative effects that alcohol has on our gut flora and digestive tract.
  3. Boost your gut flora – Stress, along with late nights, drinking alcohol and eating high sugar foods have all been shown to have a detrimental effect on the gut flora. Supplementing your diet with live bacteria can help to restore the balance of the gut flora and improve immune function.
  4. Watch your spending – Christmas can be an expensive time of year with present buying, socialising and indulgent treats. Draw up a budget beforehand, stick to it and don’t allow yourself to be pressured into overspending.
  5. Get outdoors – Enjoy some outdoor exercise. Choose an activity that you really find fun, such as cycling, country walks or jogging which should help to benefit both your cardiovascular health and mental wellbeing.
  6. Do all your shopping in one day if you can – that way your mind stays focused. Do as much shopping as you can over the internet, thus avoiding crowds, queues and parking problems, you may even save money. If you prefer high street shopping, write down which shops you want to visit and try to put a time limit on each. Watch the coffee breaks– caffeine prompts the body to release the stress hormone cortisol. Instead, keep yourself hydrated with water if you can
  7. Enjoy the extra time you have with your family – Try organising activities that have a strong physical focus which will do a lot towards addressing the issues of relieving stress and eradicating the excess calories you’ve consumed.
  8. Don’t let work take over your time with family/friends – The key to a successful and relatively stress-free Christmas is successful time-management. It will make your work life easier, your home life easier and it is the only way to make it through Christmas with a smile on your face.
  9. Breathe – One of the first things we can do to have immediate effect is to breathe. The most fundamental force of life, yet it rarely gets our attention. Breathing controls the exchange of vital oxygen and excretion of waste carbon dioxide from the blood. When we are stressed, our breathing instantly becomes shallow and impairs the body’s vital functions. Deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system and combats our sympathetic nervous system’s ‘fight or flight’ response to daily stresses.  Studies suggest that transcendental meditation (TM) in particular – in which breathing settles down dramatically and spontaneously without any control – invokes a unique physiological state, different to sleep and ordinary relaxation.
  10. Keep your expectations modest – Don’t get hung up on what the Christmas holidays are supposed to be like and how you’re supposed to feel. If you’re comparing your festivities to Christmas at The Walton’s, they’ll always come up short, so don’t worry about festive spirit and take it as it comes.
  11. Delegate – Delegate the responsibility for certain tasks to other family members since this will reduce your workload and stress levels.
  12. Try and enjoy the festive season – Take the time to drive around and enjoy the incredible displays of Christmas lights, attend a special carol concert, make decorations with the kids, or just take a long hot bath. Your Christmas stress will drop considerably.
  13. Have realistic expectations of your family – Accept that they are not perfect and that they will probably say things that you don’t like, but make a decision to try not to let it spoil your day. Try to steer clear of risky conversation topics which may provoke rows, and if you feel your stress levels rising, try to take a few moments to yourself and take some deep breaths to help you relax.

Whatever the time of year, but especially at Christmas, it’s important to monitor your feelings.  If the year has been tough, give yourself permission to acknowledge that you can’t force yourself to be happy just because of the festive season.  In the run up to Christmas, take time out for yourself – whether it’s a massage, reading a book or going for a long walk. It’s important to give yourself the same care and consideration that you would your best friend, so take a step back from thinking about what gifts to buy others, what food to cook for others and who you should have over for festive drinks.

Adopting a positive attitude can help you to think of Christmas as less of a stress and more of a joy and you may be surprised at how much even this change can help – if you expect the worst then that’s usually what you’ll get.

Deal with things head on, delegate whenever possible, and set expectations from the outset, and I hope you’ll have an amazing time!  But above all, be yourself. Work out what you want as a family and work from there.

Have a really great Christmas!