How to stay emotionally healthy over Christmas

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Christmas is a time for getting together and celebrating with family and friends. However, it can also be a very difficult time. Lots of us feel under pressure during the festive period – to have the perfect Christmas, to buy the perfect gifts that our children and friends want, to please all our families. A lack of money, time or energy, credit card bills and the pressure of giving gifts might also contribute to stress during the holiday season.

If you begin to feel overwhelmed by problems, Christmas can turn from being a season of joy into a time of panic, loneliness, depression, anxiety and dread.

Anecdotally, it’s known, at least by anyone who has extended family, that more grudges are formed at Christmas than at any other time of year; old family rivalries, arguments, one-upmanship and even fights about your sister’s spoilt kids tend to rear their ugly heads. Split families and unresolved conflicts may also contribute to Christmas anxiety. Other sources of stress might be political (think Brexit) or cultural clashes caused by generational or even geographical differences, which result in tense atmospheres or furious rows over the dinner table.

Let’s face it, you’re already exhausted by your extra-heavy workload:

  • shopping for cards (particularly the special ones for mum and dad or sister etc), wrapping paper, crackers and presents (a few extra for surprise guests or someone you’d forgotten about altogether)
  • getting your tree down from the loft or buying a new one; making sure the lights work – before you put them on the tree, decorating it and tying tinsel everywhere
  • writing out cards in time for the last post and, if you’re like me, filling them with sparkling stars and glitter, which drives my family and friends nuts. Ha, they’ll miss me when I’m gone
  • perfectly wrapping presents with matching tags, ribbons and bows (unwrapping one without tearing it to throw in the aforementioned sprinkles that I’d forgotten)
  • planning the menu, shopping for the huge amounts of food (because the shops are closed – for one day) and loads of champagne – oh, and don’t forget Uncle Cedric only drinks Stout – do they still sell this stuff?
  • planning who’ll sit where – to avoid the old family feuds – I wouldn’t worry about it cos there’s always someone who’s not happy anyway!
  • table decorating – at Christmas is huge now – you see everyone posting their amazing table on Instagram and Facebook – what’s all that about?
  • being all things to all people

Phew! I’m already shattered. So, having done all the above, you’d think you’d be able to relax on Christmas Day, right?

Nope! You’ve still got Christmas breakfast to cook………………..

Right, rewind……. let’s start again. Okay, so I’m a bit late posting this as Christmas is almost upon us and most of you will have done all your cards, shopping and preparation. But, and it’s big one, you still have a few days to get some self-care in so that you’ll be as relaxed as everyone else on the day:

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  • if you haven’t already done so, enlist some help: write down who’s doing what and make sure the kids are involved – delegate, delegate, delegate
  • when the going gets tough, remember Christmas is a time for family, for friendship and spending time together – so what if you’ve forgotten the stuffing (tho I know my hubby would be desperately disappointed) or batteries for the kids’ most wanted gifts (they’ll have to join in the annual game of Monopoly)
  • enjoy some simple things like go for a walk somewhere calm and soothing -gentle activity such as a 15-minute walk helps your body to regulate its insulin production, which can be disturbed by stress
  • try yoga, meditation or do some gentle stretches to loosen those tight muscles, take time out to have a massage or even just get hubby to give you a ten-minute foot massage/shoulder rub
  • have yourself a long, luxurious bubble bath – small acts of self-care go a long way in helping us feel more positive and energised
  • have yourself a nice hot chocolate (with or without the marshmallows) and snuggle up on the sofa/bed with a good book for a few hours
  • listen to your favourite music and, if you’re feeling up to it, dance like no one can see you, sing along like no one can hear you
  • catch up with a favourite friend and have a good old belly-laugh, nothing better to get you in the mood and it’s well known that fun and laughter is a great stress reliever
  • go to the cinema, the theatre or a comedy show – sit back and relax
  • eat mood-boosting foods; a carbohydrate-rich meal can help to boost serotonin levels
  • wind down gradually before bedtime and get plenty of sleep; set an alarm for bedtime and go to bed at the same time each night – to regulate your sleep pattern
  • sniff some lemons (I’m not kidding) – according to researchers at Ohio State University, lemon scents instantly boost your mood
  • and breathe – deeply – out then in, half a dozen times or so – taking just a few moments each day to practice some deep breathing exercises can decrease stress, relax your mind and body and can help you sleep better. Deep breathing is, among many other things, a relaxant, a natural painkiller, it improves digestion and it detoxifies the body.

Go on – treat yourself – try out a few of the above and let me know how you get on.

What other stress relievers could we try (without reaching for the second bottle of Prosecco)? Any tips, please?

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Strategies to help relieve your stress

Are you prone to high levels of stress and need some simple coping strategies to help relieve it? Yes? Okay, let’s take a look at ‘what stress means’, what causes it, signs and symptoms and finally, some evidence-based simple techniques to alleviate some of your stress.

Stress can be defined as the degree to which you feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures that are unmanageable. 

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At the most basic level, stress is our body’s response to pressures from a situation or life event. What contributes to stress can vary hugely from person to person and differs according to our social and economic circumstances, the environment we live in and our genetic makeup (www.mentalhealth.org.uk).

Stress isn’t always bad. In small doses, it can help you perform under pressure and motivate you to do your best. But when you’re constantly running in emergency mode, your mind and body pay the price.

If you frequently find yourself feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, it’s time to take action to bring your nervous system back into balance. You can protect yourself—and improve how you think and feel—by learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms of chronic stress and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects (Helpguide.org).

With the festive period upon us, no doubt many of us will experience some kind of stress; who to buy gifts for, what to buy them, how much will I spend, Christmas food shopping, writing cards and wrapping gifts……….

Understanding what causes us stress and taking action to manage our stress levels is a key part of looking after our wellbeing.

The Stress Container can help us understand how we experience stress and how to address our stress levels. Use this fantastic interactive tool to explore it (MHFA England)

Click to access stress-container-resource-download.pdf

Some people (me included) are unlucky and have a high vulnerability to stress. Is it ‘nature’ (genetic) or ‘nurture’ (learnt behaviours) that causes stress? To be honest, it doesn’t really matter where it came from, it’s knowing what to do about it that’s important.

If our stress bucket gets too full we can suffer from mental ill health. Certain life events such as unemployment, divorce or separation, bereavement, mental or physical illness etc. can cause our buckets to overflow quite quickly but sometimes small life stressors (having to write out 50+ Christmas cards and empty my suitcase, put a wash on………), can build and accumulate also causing our buckets to fill.

Looking at the diagram above – Vulnerability is shown by the size of the bucket so, for me with high vulnerability to stress, my bucket will be smaller, it will fill up and will overflow quite quickly – unless I use some coping techniques.

The large bucket would be used by someone who has low vulnerability to stress, you know – that person who never flaps, always remains calm and tells you to “chill out” or “relax”. Their bucket will never overflow.

Signs and symptoms of stress overload

The most dangerous thing about stress is how easily it can creep up on you. You get used to it. It starts to feel familiar, even normal. You don’t notice how much it’s affecting you, even as it takes a heavy toll. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress overload.

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Memory problems
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Poor judgment
  • Seeing only the negative
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constant worrying

Emotional symptoms:

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Physical symptoms:

  • Aches and pains
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Chest pain, rapid heart rate
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Frequent colds or flu

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Eating more or less
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
  • Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
  • Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing). (Helpguide.org)

I often have to remind myself to use some evidence-based coping strategies I used to teach patients:

  • let my shoulders drop (I’ve just realised right now, they’re up around my ears and they ache like hell)
  • unclench my teeth and relax my jaw
  • stop frowning (I do that when I’m concentrating)
  • unclench my hands (my balled fists look ready to punch someone)
  • get up, away from my laptop, stretch and pace the floor for a bit to loosen my limbs and knotted muscles
  • breathe (I hold my breath when I concentrating too) slowly – out then in for about 30 seconds
  • do some mindfulness for anything between 3 minutes (for a quick de-stressor) and 15 minutes (totally de-stressed). I get it; some people just aren’t into mindfulness, and that’s okay. Perhaps you can simply ‘be’.
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I’ve just done all the above – I didn’t realise how tight my neck and shoulders were -and I really do feel better. If you’re prone to stress, you could try all or some of these coping strategies. The body can’t possibly be tense and relaxed at the same time so, it makes sense that if you’re relaxed – your stress levels will lessen.

You can use these strategies anytime, anywhere; say in your GP surgery, on public transport etc. Sit (if possible) on a chair with a back on it, place your feet flat on the floor (no crossed legs – this creates tension in your muscles), rest your palms on your thighs, let your shoulders drop and ……………. de-stress.

What’s in your stress bucket right now? How ill you cope over the festive period? I’d love to know how you de-stress too. Any hints or tips?