‘Tis the most wonderful time of the year… Until the meltdowns start, you’ve got a to-do list longer than Santa’s and steam coming out of your ears long before the sprouts are even in the pan.
Christmas can be stressful. Even if you know you’re lucky to have loved ones to share festivities with, we are human – with finite energy, emotions as tangled as last year’s tree lights, and a gold star ability to overload our plates.
Relatable? Here’s our expert-led guide for folks who want Christmas to be lovely, without losing the plot completely along the way…
Make stress-busting part of the plan
Could you embrace seasonal traditions that actually help lower stress levels, and provide welcome breathers amidst the mayhem? A baking sesh with some tunes on, movie nights with snacks (and phones in another room), walks with a flask of hot chocolate or mulled wine. That way, de-stressing won’t feel like a separate chore to fit in, and you’ll be making memories.
“Activities like spending time in nature are balm for the soul when things are hectic,” agrees executive coach and mindfulness trainer Karen Liebenguth.
“To be well, we need a balance between doing and being – i.e. not having an agenda, taking time out to restore and recharge. When we go on walks in nature away from the business of daily life, our body and nervous system calm down. [And] it helps us gain perspective and a sense of agency over the choices we make.”
If it’s the anticipation of everything being overwhelming that’s giving you angst, block off regular outdoors time on your calendar (yes, even when you’re busy – in fact especially when you’re busy).
“In busy times, the things that sustain us and give us energy often fall off our agenda. It’s absolutely vital to schedule in ‘outdoor time’ and to take this restorative time as seriously as any other commitment,” says Liebenguth, even if it’s just short walks. “The payoff is huge as it brings balance, perspective and a positive outlook into your life.”
Let go of perfection
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a lovely time. But perfect? This is real life, not a Hallmark movie; no one needs that sort of pressure.
“It isn’t down to you to make Christmas perfect, and perfection is not what we should be striving for anyway. If things do not go to plan, don’t beat yourself up,” says Lizzie Grant, professional organiser and founder of Declutter on Demand. “It’s your holiday too, so decide on a few things you enjoy doing at this time of year, so you can get into the festive spirit.”
Dr Jan Ewing, who is part of a University of Exeter team leading a long-term study into what builds healthy marriages and relationships, says avoiding the perfectionist mindset is a biggie – especially if Christmas stress tends to lead to rows and resentment between you and your partner.
“The couples who were doing well had what psychologists would call a developmental mindset. People who are developmental don’t expect things to be perfect; they expect to have to work on their relationship, to have stressful periods, and therefore they’re not side-swept by that as much when it happens. They talk about how it’s just unrealistic to think it’s going to be all plain sailing, because that’s not life,” explains Ewing.
So when it comes to Christmas, these couples might expect “there’d be highs and lows, fun and tears”.
“There’s going to be a point where one kid has had too much chocolate and will have a little meltdown,” adds Ewing. “And perhaps your brother and sister-in-law have never got on, so there’s probably going to be words.”
Teamwork makes the dream work
It’s not about channelling your inner Scrooge and dreading the inevitable awfulness of it all (although yes, we’ve all been tempted to cancel the whole thing!). But a healthy dose of realism means we can respond more comfortably and not take everything as a personal blow or shattering disappointment.
Plus, for couples, it provides space to work as a team – something those doing well in their study did a lot of, adds Ewing, as well as anticipating “trigger points” and talking about them beforehand. Christmas triggers might be who’s saddled with doing all the shopping, day two of the in-laws being over, someone needing quiet time while so-and-so takes offence if everyone isn’t together every minute of the day.
“They saw the possible things [that might cause stress], and even though they couldn’t necessarily change or control them, they talked about it in advance. That helped them put strategies in place for getting through it, and even just anticipating that it could happen, helped,” says Ewing.
Share the load
Another very important aspect to working as a team is to share the load. Remember, your partner is not a mind-reader (no matter how strongly you wish they were or think they ‘should’ be), so speak up. And be prepared to accept your part in your relationship dynamics: do you end up doing everything yourself because you think you do it better? Do you feel guilty when you actually get a moment’s peace and aren’t the one doing everything?
Ewing says the healthy couples they saw tended to “keep short accounts” with each other. “They don’t let things fester; they talk about it there and then.” They also tended to be “reciprocal with their efforts” but didn’t “keep score” of who was doing the most – they just “cracked on with it as a team”.
This isn’t just about partners and spouses – if you are hosting or getting together with family, Grant suggests delegating tasks amongst each other too. This could be specific food and drinks items, which will share the work and costs.
And there’s always January…
Christmas can also crank people-pleasing pressures to the max. Struggle to say no for fear of disappointing anyone, or the potential outcomes if you did? “The first thing is to recognise our tendency to people-please and to be kind to ourselves,” says Liebenguth. “When we people-please, we neglect our own needs and wants and undermine our wellbeing. So, a helpful first step is to pause and ask ourselves: ‘And what do I need and want right now?’
“It’s not about not pleasing others, but to take ourselves into account. It’s about being able to have clear boundaries and say no at times. For example: ‘Yes, I’m happy to stay over at Christmas and help with the preparations but I won’t come for five days, I will come for three because I also need a day or two to myself’.”
Plus, there can be so much pressure to cram everything into December. While a full festive calendar can be lovely, overloading may not be wise. Maybe seeing loved ones in January instead would make more sense all round, and who says the run-up to December 25 has to be a military operation anyway?
“Cut your to-do list down to the absolute essential tasks, which are achievable,” suggests Grant. “Break each of these down into smaller chunks and diarise when to do them. Then, if it looks like you have time, move on to a few of the ‘nice-to-do’ tasks. But remember, if it’s not essential, give yourself a break!”