Saturday 22 October 2016

15 strategies for stress-free Christmas

Published 07/12/2015 | 02:30

Keep Calm for Christmas
Keep Calm for Christmas
Christmas stress can be a burden for many

While Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier we still have just over two weeks to go before we discover that somehow, once again, we will have made it!

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We will have Christmas cards written and sent. We will have bought some presents. We will be experiencing that sense of relief that Christmas Day has finally arrived. We won't need to ask, 'Are we there yet?' because we will be! Will there be a huge cost though? Might we be so drained, so exhausted and so fed-up with the 'whole Christmas thing' that we could be at risk of not actually enjoying it?

Christmas for many people is a difficult time. The 'festive season' can lead to excess drinking, eating and spending. Rows may be more frequent and more severe as adults revert to their childhood roles, complete with all sorts of barely hidden resentments. For some of us, people we love and loved will not be here with us and everything might seem false and wrong. Maybe it is not surprising that so many people actually dread this time of year.

Does it have to be like this or can we turn things around and actually enjoy the next few weeks?

I used to hate this time of year. My parents were in the retail business together and worked long hours, particularly in December. As a child, I used to wish that we could skip the first three weeks in December and just go straight to Christmas Day; I used to wish that as an adult too for many years. Then, I discovered something: I discovered that I could actually enjoy this time. I started to make some key changes that worked for me and thankfully, continue to work for me. I have included some of these below.

You might like to try out a different one each day or choose to focus on three that work best for you!

1 Be traditional - let the Christmas season start on the December 8!

If you have already put up your Christmas tree and decorated your house, you might like to somehow mark tomorrow as the 'official start of Christmas' by 'turning on' the lights when it gets dark and create a new Christmas tradition. You could do this while playing Christmas carols and munching mince pies. If you already prefer to wait until December 8, you have a busy few hours getting your house ready, so enjoy them!

2 Buy yourself an early Christmas present

You might be thinking that this is a very extravagant suggestion but I don't mean it to be. I am suggesting that you buy a small notebook. Call this 'My Wonderful Moments' book and every night before you go to sleep, record three moments that you enjoyed that day. This will focus you to notice the things you enjoy as you enjoy them and again later when you write them into your book.

3 Choose beautiful music to listen to while driving

December is a bit of a mad month really. There can be a lot of rushing, shoving and pushing. Roads become even busier and traffic delays are inevitable. Choose a particular CD to be your 'calming music' and notice how you can quickly associate it with becoming calmer. The John Murray Show produced two beautiful Christmas CDs in the past few years, which I keep in my car all year round, but listen to and enjoy from December 8.

4 Practise breathing slowly

People who meditate regularly refer to their meditation as their 'practice'. When I notice myself speaking quickly and rushing around, I remind myself to 'breathe slowly'. I don't always notice, so it has been very helpful for me to practice breathing slowly on a regular basis.

While there are definitely drawbacks to our increasing reliance on smartphones, the phones themselves have some advantages if we use them well.

There are two apps I particularly like and they are both free to download. The first is Mindful Gnats and the second is Virtual Hope Box. Both have tools that can be very helpful in assisting in the practice of breathing slowly.

5 Choose to slow down

Life seems to have speeded up. We rush, we run, we rush. No wonder so many of us wake up on December 25 feeling absolutely exhausted. We don't need to continue living at top speed. There is now ample proof that we are more productive, more focused and more efficient when we do things at a slower pace. Choosing to slow down is a key step in actually slowing down.

6 Link 'breathing slowly' to something that is particularly stressful

We each have different triggers of stress. Some of us experience finding a parking space in December as a battle. A simple trip to the post office in the next few weeks can raise our blood pressure in a way that could actually be dangerous to us, as well as to others around us!

Hearing children including yet another expensive toy that Santa is going to bring them might be the key trigger for you or for someone you know. Whatever the trigger (or probably triggers!), simply by deliberately breathing slowly can bring an immediate moment of calm - if we practise.

7 Manage expectations

Why do so many of us push ourselves to reach perfection? I know some people who, having bought and maybe even decorated, a Christmas tree, decide that it is 'too lopsided', 'too small', 'too big' or just not perfect enough. Do you know anyone who has made a second, or even a third Christmas cake because the first didn't really work out well?

If we set our expectations too high, there is a real risk that we will feel disappointed. Asking ourselves if our expectations are realistic can be very helpful.

8 Balance

It can be very easy to get out of balance at this time of year. Sugary foods are everywhere. It can be seen as acceptable to drink excessive amounts of alcohol. All sorts of items get thrown into shopping trolleys 'because it is Christmas' with no regard for the cost or the inevitable waste. We know that overeating, overdrinking and overspending can have serious adverse consequences. Notice how you feel when you are in and out of balance and give 'moderation' a chance.

9 Gently recharge as needed

I am struck by how many times a day I now need to recharge my mobile phone. The more I use it, the more I need to recharge it. While sometimes I feel frustrated by this, I don't take it out on the phone. I don't scream at it, jump on it or throw it out the window. Instead, I give it what it needs: to be linked in to energy supply for a while. How about we each deliberately recognise when we need to be recharged and give ourselves some 'time out' when we need it?

10 Exercise as 'Recharging'

When we get 'too busy', we can tend to stop doing what is actually good for us. Exercise is a good example. Yes, we know that exercising is one of the best things that we can do to help keep us sane in an increasingly complex and demanding world. It also can be one of the things that we stop doing over the next few weeks as we 'just don't have time!' Make time!

12 Stand and stare

Over 100 years ago, WH Davies in his wonderful poem Leisure, asked the question, 'What is this life if full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare?'

His answer in his last stanza was very clear, simple and powerful: 'A poor life this if full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare.'

Have you stood and stared into a shop window to really see the decorations? Have you stood and stared at what you are blessed to already have in your life right now? If not, will you now, right now, stand and stare for a few moments?

13 Ask for and take help

Who says we have to do everything all on our own? We know that these next few weeks will be busy. If you are one of the millions of people who prefer to do things themselves rather than ask for help, how about stopping and asking at least one person for help? And then, I suggest, take the help that is offered! This might be as simple as asking someone who is already going to the post office to get you some stamps too. Or if you are experiencing some of the symptoms of stress or depression, maybe attending one of Aware's support groups, phoning Aware's support line or emailing Aware's support mail, will be of real help.

It can be difficult to ask for help and maybe even humbling to take it, but think of the benefits to you and to the people around you. Maybe this is the best present you can arrange for yourself.

14 Honour what Christmas means for you

The word 'Christmas' can be very off-putting for people who do not have much time for Christ or Christians. In the US, this time of year is now known as the 'holiday season' so as not to be offensive to anyone. If you are someone who sees Christmas as an important religious festival, why not remind yourself of that in whatever way seems appropriate to you. It can be easy enough to do, particularly if you were blessed to welcome a new baby into your family during this year.

15 Create new traditions

Christmas is a time of traditions, but who says we can't create new ones! One year when I was a teenager, my mother announced that it was traditional that the men washed up after the Christmas dinner. It hadn't been up until then but it has since become a very useful tradition to have!

A new tradition for me over the last 10 years has been to meet with a cousin to celebrate Christmas when all the fuss has died down and we can relax and enjoy being with each other. One year, it took us until August to arrange, but most of the time we do it in January or February.

The 10th annual Aware Christmas Run takes place next Saturday, December 12 in the Phoenix Park, Dublin. Full details and registration (until midnight on Wed, Dec 9) are available at

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