As much as we all want Christmas to revolve around perfect presents, tasty food and drink, no work, and leisure time to be spent with close family and friends, it can be a psychologically tense and stressful time even among the most happy and well-adjusted families. Not only is there the crowded shopping, the writing of copious Christmas cards, the wrapping of presents, and the travelling, but there is often the extra burden of obligatory extended family staying and/or visiting. Patience can be pushed to the outer limit throughout the festive period. Trying to satisfy multiple family members all of who have different needs is difficult at best. Additionally, family reunions have the potential to bring about a range of deep-rooted emotions including jealousy, resentment, competitiveness, and (sibling) rivalry. Expectations may not be met. Instead of joy and happiness we may feel stressed, hurt and/or exhausted. So how do you cope with the family-related stresses and strains during the festive period? Here are my top ten tips.
(1) Keep expectations of time spent with family hopeful but realistic – You may not be able to change your family’s dynamics, but at least be aware of how your family can affect your psychological mood state. Some relatives may use the Christmas family reunion to play out family dynamics or re-enact old sibling rivalries. Knowing the problems you might expect from particular family members makes them easier to deal with should they arise. If possible, find ways to shorten or eliminate the family experiences that put you in a bad, anxious or depressed mood.
(2) Make your family time count – Instead of watching television or DVDs for hours on end, do something together as a family. Go for a walk after the Christmas dinner, play a karaoke video game, play a board game or a parlour game like charades. Basically, do anything where you have to interact with each other. Even making the Christmas dinner could be a communal activity where each adult and child has a specific job.
(3) Drink alcohol in moderation – Alcohol can be a double-edged sword so be mindful when drinking with family members. Alcohol’s disinhibiting effect can help facilitate friendly family interaction but drinking too much during family gatherings can sometimes lead to saying things that we later regret.
(4) Don’t take everything personally – The ability to step back from a stressful situation caused by a family member is a skill to be cultivated. Remember that any family member is an individual with moods and desires that are separate from their relationship with you. If something really irritates or stresses you, think about what triggered the feeling, then try to let it go and don’t take it personally.
(5) Take time out every day – Stress at Christmas time can sometimes arise just because there is a house full of people with little opportunity for “me” time. Try to find time in the day to do something on your own. Go for a brisk walk, pop to the newsagents, have a long bath, tidy up the kitchen while listening to a soccer match or the Ashes, or put your headphones on and listen to your favourite music. Do anything that gives you that much needed little ‘time out’ for the day.
(6) Be organized – Sounds easy but good organization can often be the key to a hassle-free day. Starting out each day with some kind of “game plan” can help alleviate the typical stress that arises from the Christmas family politics.
(7) Be assertive – Again, easier said than done but learning the power of how to be politely assertive and just saying ‘no’ when faced with family obligations over Christmas can pay big stress-free dividends. Learn how to set boundaries with family so you can experience the true joy of the festive season.
(8) Beware the vicious circle – Children, as well as adults, can feel stressed during Christmas. Children often pick up on signs of your anxiety and they themselves can become stressed. This can lead to you feeling even more stressed. In short, a vicious circle where stress and anxiety feeds off each other. Try to hide the stress you feel, especially from children, as this may decrease the length of time you feel anxious.
(9) Be grateful for what you have in life – No matter how stressful your family may be over the festive period, it is always good to be grateful for the things you have in your life. As one psychologist noted in his blog: “If you are reading this online, then you are alive, have access to the internet, and have at least some free time to surf the net”.
(10) Remember that relationships are the most important thing we have – All of us need to remember that the Christmas feelings of joy and happiness come not from the gifts, decorations, food and drink, but from our relationships with other people. Christmas is about relationships – not only the relationship you have your family and friends, but also the relationship you have with yourself. If we make our close relationships the top priority, then the rest of the Christmas should fall naturally into place.
Professor Mark Griffiths is based in the Psychology Division of Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences