Making The Most Of Stress At Christmas

Christmas getting you down already?

For many, the approach to Christmas is a period of dread. The children are back at school, days getting shorter, no more public holidays to look forward to. Already, it seems, we are under bombardment from incessant reminders that Christmas is the next big event in the calendar. For some - especially those stuck at home - this can be a period of mounting misery as the seasonal blitz draws nearer.

A recent attitude survey of more than 1500 people showed that Christmas comes second only to financial problems at the top of everyoneís stress and worry list.

Yet autumn is supposed to be a time of maturity, a time to unwind and take things more gently as we approach winter and the active festive season. And Christmas, when it comes, is traditionally a season of joy, of family reunions, of friendship and generosity, a time when we want to feel good and look great, a time for everyone to loosen up, let their hair down and have fun. So why do some of us get uptight just at the thought of it? Why should a generally welcome - and certainly predictable - event be the cause of so much negative anxiety?

Stress over Christmas. Who needs it? We all dream of a stress-free Christmas. But what would you say to the notion that some stress can actually be good for you?

Thatís certainly the view of Dr Christina Elvin. She takes stress very seriously. In fact, sheís made it her lifeís work. Not to cure it, but to show people ways in which they can recognise stress and learn how to handle it. A few simple stress management techniques are sometimes all thatís necessary to take the sting out of seasonal strain.

Yes, some stress is natural and even invigorating, a necessary component for leading a full and happy life. It gets the adrenaline flowing, quickens the mind, energises the body and helps us get on with life in a much more positive way. With wisdom, we can even learn to see stress as something of a friend. Nothing demonstrates this syndrome more than Christmas. Which is why Dr Elvin is running a series of workshops designed to help people not just cope with stress but channel it into positive areas to help make Christmas truly a season to be jolly.

Dr Elvin is a consultant in stress management. She works mostly in the workplace to help staff identify and rectify problems caused by stress. Sometimes, these problems arise simply from our inadequate understanding of what makes people irritable, difficult to get on with and unproductive. She advocates a range of techniques and coping skills, many of which can be easily applied in the domestic situation to ensure that stress doesnít take over our lives.

Basically, Dr Elvin says there are two ways of dealing with stress.

First, thereís the passive approach. This is favoured by some practitioners who dwell entirely on the process of easing pain. On the assumption that stress is inevitable, all you can do is learn to live with it, follow a few techniques for relaxation and hope the worst effects are brought under some sort of control. This is fine in its way and there are many suitable techniques you can follow: massage, aromatherapy, meditation, self-hypnosis, reflexology. These are gentle, non-invasive therapies, deeply relaxing and restorative - a great way to reduce excess tension.

But these methods donít actually help much when it comes to getting the work done or handling crises and flashpoints that may accompany, for example, a well-planned visit from an ageing relative with more than a few eccentricities.

A different approach is to look for the opportunities stress can create for us: see Christmas as a challenge, an opportunity to put those tensions and pressures to good use.

The first step towards successful stress management is self awareness and putting things into perspective. Stress is caused by basic animal instincts like hunger and fear. The reaction to these is automatic preparation for fight or flight. Stress is an aspect of living that can be beneficial when it motivates or inspires, but can be harmful when it does not. Chronic stress - severe or prolonged - is generally unwelcome in anyoneís life. It can lead, as we are frequently told, to all manner of ills, to exhaustion, depletion and finally to disease. It reduces our ability to cope, undermines our confidence and destroys our sense of well being. Thatís the downside.

So, whatís the upside? In the case of Christmas, we all know itís coming and we all deal with it in different ways. For most, Christmas brings an association of ideas, some pleasant and cheerful, others sometimes painful. Most of us can think back fondly to moments in childhood when the magic of Christmas shone through. As we grow older, we realise that Christmas can also be a time with too many expectations, too much pressure and perhaps, for a few, a time of sadness and painful memories. Some try to ignore it till the last possible moment then panic and plunge into a frantic whirlwind of activity. Others start worrying and planning for the next one almost as soon as the New Year celebrations for the last one are out of the way.

Whether you look forward with excitement to the shopping and preparations or with dread at all the disruption, extra work and drain on resources, Christmas is a festival which makes great demands on our physical and emotional energy. Routines are disrupted, diets forgotten, digestions thrown out of kilter, anxieties build up on all levels.

So, what should you do to be sure that you will feel good, cope well and look your best all over the Christmas and the New Year holiday season?

Dr Elvin explores some of the other techniques that are needed:-

∑ time management to help plan the basic tasks that must accomplished
∑ simple awareness of what effect stress can have on you or other members of the family
∑ basic communication skills to help you understand the meaning of body language
∑ assertiveness, to deal with difficult people
∑ TA (transactional analysis), to seek agreement
∑ NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) skills to avoid unnecessary confrontations

Despite the fancy names, these are all simple skills which you can learn from training or teach yourself to help get through that difficult seasonal planning period.

Tinaís Twenty Four Tips for a Stress Controlled Christmas

∑ Plan your budget now. Work out what you can afford. Budget for presents, extra consumption, a few luxuries and some recreation. Make sure to include something for yourself.

∑ If the budget is tight, confront the problem early. Don't feel pressured to overspend on anything. Prune the number of gifts. Feel free to announce to everyone that youíre cutting back this year. Tell them why. Theyíll understand. They may even feel relieved.

∑ If you hate the whole commercialised approach to Christmas, consider alternatives that donít involve purchases. Itís the thought that counts, so why not give people a letter instead? Most of us have too many Ďthingsí in our lives anyway. Your words, thoughts or pictures could mean more to uncle Harry than another pair of socks or tacky novelties.

∑ Consider a more creative approach, especially if youíre good at making things. Work, on things you like doing, can be relaxing and rewarding. Youíll get a lot of fun out of it. Others will often appreciate the pleasure of a unique hand-crafted gift more than if youíd bought them something expensive from Harrods.

∑ Be assertive. Donít be a slave to convention. If you donít want to give to people, tell them in advance. Youíll feel better for making a clean breast of it, theyíll respect you far more than if you just appear to Ďforgetí.

∑ Be aware that everyone is different. We donít all have to do things the same way, however much the commercial market-makers would have us behave in droves and herds. Take shopping. Try to understand the psychology of shopping. What sort of shopper are you: last minute panic/planner/expensive/bizarre? Just knowing this can be a great asset in self awareness. If you believe in astrology, work out what effect your star sign has on the way you plan to shop.

∑ Get plenty of exercise. This is always good for reducing stress. Remember, shopping is exercise. So when you visit that retail park and find you canít park near the shop entrance, be grateful for the opportunity to walk. Park further away than necessary. Make yourself go up or down a few hills or steps. Avoid crowded lifts. Walk up the stairwells. Youíll burn off calories and relieve tension at the same time. Instead of going out for an office binge in a restaurant, go dancing or roller-skating instead.

∑ Take a break from the preparations. Allow yourself to be pampered. If others wonít do it, find your own way. A trip to the beauty salon or hairdresser can be wonderfully relaxing, or just chill out with a well loved book for a chosen period each day. Youíll come out feeling refreshed and ready to do battle again in the shopping malls and retail parks.

∑ Consider subdued decorations rather than gaudy tinsel. A few well placed holly leaves and candles are far more restful to the eyes than a load of kitsch. On the other hand, putting up decorations can be good exercise, fun and can bring people closer.

∑ Place burners in strategic places to deliver a restful seasonal mixture of aromatherapy oils. Orange and cinnamon blend particularly well at Christmas time.

∑ Make time for others, but make time also for yourself. Christmas is a time for everyone to give, not just you. Most of all, make sure those closest to home give you some of their time. Tell the kids youíre not there to be their servant and you deserve a rest from work too. Help with the chores could mean all the difference between you enjoying Christmas or simply enduring it.

∑ Don't be at home to people you don't want around. Avoid those family rows, so often caused by release of pent up emotions from the Christmas build-up. If you canít face another family Christmas, donít let it trouble you. Be honest - with yourself and others.

∑ Consider a complete break. Everyone likes traditions. They make us feel secure and a linked with the past. But you donít have to do everything the way it was last year only bigger and better. Why not go away and leave everyone else to it? But donít then end up fretting about whatís happening back at home or worrying because the hotel staff are doing all the work and you feel guilty for not putting on an apron.

∑ If youíve decided to stay at home, look objectively at why members of the family can easily fly off the handle when confronted with the annual visit to/from relatives; talk openly about the difficulties. If youíve invited aunt Mabel or uncle Albert and you know they need to be handled with kid gloves, warn the rest of the family to behave with patience, dignity and decorum, but not necessarily with cloying servility.

∑ Understand the subconscious body language that makes people react in certain ways without consciously realising it.

∑ Plan the main events, like cooking Christmas dinner. Allow time to write down shopping and cooking requirements. No amount of joy at seeing long-missed relatives can compensate for the disappointment of sitting down to un under-cooked turkey, or forgotten bread sauce.

∑ Spread the distribution of presents over the whole of Christmas day, or even beyond. That way, children donít get over-excited by the sudden arrival of heaps of new toys. Make sure they wonít be disappointed and give you grief over missing batteries, incomprehensible instructions or broken parts.

∑ Relaxation? Sure. We all need some of that, especially when thereís lots of activity going on. Realise just which type of relaxation suits you best so that you can treat yourself to it. Use meditation, or just sit quietly by yourself in a favourite spot. If things get out of hand, stop, get some fresh air, take a few deep controlled breaths, cut out the hubbub, count elephants slowly to yourself ("one elephant, two elephants, three elephants.....), then imagine yourself for a while surrounded by pure white light. Youíll be amazed how good this can make you feel.

∑ Make sure other members of the family understand your need to be alone, how important it is to preserving your well-being and even sanity. But donít assume that being relaxed will remove the stress of getting those essential jobs done. It might help you avoid a nervous breakdown, but it wonít get all the shopping done, or the presents wrapped, or the turkey cooked. Try to achieve a balance.

∑ Make time for quiet, relaxing activities, not just at night but during the day. The television and computer has an off button. Church can be therapeutic as well as spiritual.

∑ Recognise your normal coping mechanisms. Sometimes, these are crutches: alcohol, food, sex. Donít put them off just because itís Christmas, but donít use Christmas as the excuse for over-indulgence either. Put them on hold for a short spell. Convince yourself that a short break from habit is more beneficial than doubling up on a binge you didnít really want.

∑ Allow yourself to have fun. You donít have to work continuously or over-stretch yourself. Being with a martyr is not always what others want for company. They will get enjoyment out of you being relaxed and happy. Let yourself and others do what they want - neither the Queen's speech nor the games need to be compulsory. Neither is the turkey. Or getting drunk.

∑ If you'd rather, work in between Christmas and New Year. It's quiet in the office and there's hardly any traffic about. You can take the time off later. Too many people crowded together for days on end stress each other out at home.

∑ Donít expect too much good will. People donít change just because itís Christmas.

Some researchers put stress in perspective by categorising stressful events in terms of Life Crisis Units. In this scheme, death of a spouse, partner or loved one comes top of the list, Christmas comes close to the bottom, just ahead of minor infringements of the law. Which is perhaps as it should be. A little humour can be a tremendous help in relieving stress. Just remember, however stressful your Christmas may be, you will get through it. With a few sensible precautions and just a little extra assertiveness, you can make this Christmas truly a time to relax and enjoy yourself.

This article was researched by John Kerr, a freelance writer and websmith. With Dr Elvinís assistance, he is planning to set up an internet website devoted to stress management.

Christina Elvin can be contacted by e-mail:; John Kerr welcomes visitors to his website: or e-mail