Monday 24 July 2017

Dr Ciara Kelly's 14 tips to get through the holidays unscathed

She adores Christmas, yet our favourite no-nonsense medic Dr Ciara Kelly is no fan of all the unnecessary pressure we put ourselves under in pursuit of the perfect Christmas Day

Dr Ciara Kelly - is a big fan of Christmas, but not the seasonal pressure. Photo: David Conachy
Dr Ciara Kelly - is a big fan of Christmas, but not the seasonal pressure. Photo: David Conachy

Ciara Kelly

I'm one of those people who absolutely love Christmas. In fact I've always loved it - possibly in response to my childhood. My Mum always hated it and I remember clearly her crying on Christmas Eve because she felt too much pressure - to produce the perfect dinner, to sort out presents on very little money and to somehow make us all exist as a family on that day in a different way to how we were the rest of the year.

She actually took on far too much and refused any help. I think she, like lots of people, was probably her own worst enemy - often deciding two days before Christmas to paint the kitchen walls and usually staying up half the night on Christmas Eve plucking a turkey my father picked up from a farmer somewhere while feeling completely overwhelmed by it all. I swore I'd do things differently and largely-ish I have.

But my Mum was not alone struggling with Christmas. For many people the pressure outweighs the joys. Sadly I've seen more than one suicide in families over the festive period - including my own extended family - as that heightened pressure gets too much for some. It's all very well to succumb to the magic and schmaltz but most of us don't live our lives like people in a John Lewis ad the other 364 days of the year - so why do we feel, or think, we can somehow morph into argyle jumper-wearing people from a Hugh Grant movie for that one day?

People feel an inordinate amount of pressure to spend money they don't have and to cook food they wouldn't normally eat and to have their house look a certain way and to be cooped up amiably with people they don't get on with and to throw a load of booze in on top and for it all to go swimmingly! And sadly it often doesn't. Every year Women's Aid runs a campaign highlighting the fact that domestic violence spikes at this time of year as homes around the country turn into Christmas pressure cookers and families often fray at the edges as people feel inadequate because their version of Christmas doesn't live up to some marketing ideal. So if you aren't someone who feels instinctively full of the joys of Christmas this festive season, what can you do to help you get through the Yuletide madness?

Financial

One of the biggest stresses people feel is financial. In a recent study in the US 45pc of people said they'd prefer to skip Christmas altogether such is the financial strain it puts on them. And Irish Christmas shoppers spend more than our European counterparts with an average minimum spend of over €600 per person clocked up on presents, clothes, booze and food here. There has to be a better way than either blowing the household finances or not doing it at all - so the first thing you should do for Christmas is budget.

It sounds dull and certainly contrary to its general excess - but living within your means at Christmas can take a huge strain off the whole season. And there are always ways to produce the exact same amount of festive cheer on a tighter budget. Reuse your decorations - you don't need new ones. Plan how much food and drink you'll actually use and only buy that - we will throw out almost a quarter of what we'll buy to eat this Christmas - and half of what we don't throw out we probably didn't need to eat either.

Read more: Special time negotiated with love and power

Don't fall into the trap of thinking the only good present is an expensive one. Some of my favourite presents ever have been tiny, cheap things that meant something to me or that somebody went to trouble over. Throwing money at Christmas doesn't make it better or more enjoyable - it just means you've succumbed to advertising, you're not organised enough or you aren't thinking enough. One year a pal of mine made homemade cranberry sauce and marmalades as presents and put them in little jars with ribbons - I was ridiculously happy with them.

Also if you know that Christmas is a big ask financially and that's stressing you out - put money aside over the months beforehand - maybe through the credit union so you've a few bob and won't feel as panicky coming up to it. And if you didn't do it for this year and you wish you had - then start early for next year. But the key message is you don't have to spend silly money on what basically boils down to a nice big roast dinner, a pine tree and a few presents. And don't be suckered into believing you do.

Emotional

Part of the whole narrative of Christmas is about getting together with those you love. But when your relationship with those you love isn't picture perfect or indeed if you, like a lot of people are lonely because you don't have an abundance of loved ones for whatever reason, then Christmas can be very, very hard. Emotions are amplified at Christmas as the whole world conspires to tell you, you should be having a perfect time and if it in some way falls short of that - especially emotionally short of that - you can feel like you are the only one who isn't living the dream.

Whilst marriage proposals are a big thing at Christmas there is also a 10pc spike in relationship break- ups, as the general strain - but very possibly also the ridiculously high expectations around Christmas - seem to put added emotional pressure on everyone. So what can be done to alleviate these stresses?

Drink: First up just don't drink so much. The spike in domestic violence and also the inevitable family row after dinner are often a direct effect of being drunk. People start drinking early - surveys say generally before lunch on Christmas day and often keep it up until bedtime. It's a recipe for disaster if things aren't great at home. And even if they are - being drunk can still result in stupid arguments. Drink less. Fight less. Simples.

And if you can't stand the thought of drinking less then ask yourself why that is? Because it probably means you have a problem. It's incidentally also a big time for relapse for those in recovery so watching the booze is good advice all round. Try and remember anything over about three drinks rarely adds to your enjoyment - often the contrary. Also if you are alone this Christmas - drinking may not result in fights but it will chemically lower your mood for up to a week after a binge - which will only make everything seem a whole lot worse than it actually is.

Also don't stay cooped up at home the whole time. You can get cabin fever stuck in a house with more people than you're used to and it can make you incredibly irritable - so your brother-in-law explaining how to properly stack a dishwasher becomes an almost unbearable situation when it should be only mildly irritating. Get out for a walk. Slip the familial leash and take a half hour to yourself. It'll diffuse that pressure-cooker feeling. Taking a bit of exercise like walking, running or whatever can also help give you a hit of endorphins that'll make you feel much better able to cope with your loved ones at too close for comfort proximity.

Read more: How to have yourself a stress-free holiday

Other good advice is not to take any big decisions about your emotional relationships at this time of year. You may very well - in the heightened emotion of Christmas - decide you hate your boyfriend or you're never going to speak to your sister again but it's no harm to wait and see if you still feel that way in the cold light of January. You may find that with the pressure of Christmas off - they're lovely again.

Loneliness

And just a further note on loneliness. Loneliness is hugely heightened at Christmas with all the mad hype about being surrounded by loved ones. But it often isn't just about being on your own, it's a subjective feeling of isolation and you can have it whether you're alone or with other people. Sometimes it's even worse when you're lonely in a group. Older people who will have lost many of their loved ones suffer from significant loneliness but they're not the only ones and we know that loneliness causes an increased risk of health problems and indeed a 26pc increased risk of death - even all other factors corrected for. That makes it worse for your health than obesity.

Loneliness is a curse and you need to fight it yourself by making the effort - if you are suffering from it - to get out and connect with other people. And if you aren't lonely yourself, do spare a thought for those around you who may be this Christmas. When there's that much food and drink in the house an extra couple of mouths at the table make no difference to you but may make a huge difference to them. And kindness really is a win win act because it makes the one who's being kind feel just as good as the one you're being kind to. Pets, though clearly not a good idea as a Christmas present, are a good year- round antidote to loneliness - so if you do feel isolated maybe you should consider getting one.

Stress: Some of the general stress is just around getting everything done. I've often thought it's like I present Christmas in a box to my family "Tah dah!" They really don't have much of an idea what goes into it as I tend to take on most of it myself - so maybe I'm not as different to my Mum as I think. And there's a fair amount to be done - if you do want the whole traditional Christmas thing - in terms of organising food, house, presents, cooking and all that jazz. The main thing around that is being organised. So write a few lists - they make things easier.

Also do what you can in advance. Sort the presents side in early December. Same with any decorations and the tree. Don't worry unduly about having the place spotless - it'll all be trashed the minute a few presents are unwrapped anyway. Get the food in two days before Christmas and do as much chopping, stuffing, and cooking as you can on Christmas Eve. That way even if you are running the show on the big day there is still a chance you'll actually get to relax and enjoy bits of it too and it won't be all work.

Delegate the hell out of it too. Get kids, partners and visitors to set tables, bring food, serve food, wash up and pour drinks. Nobody can do it all alone, not even a Kelly.

Socialising

Christmas isn't all about home life. For lots of people the big thing about Christmas is the party season. It harks back to some of the above, as it can put a strain on your finances and people often drink too much but one of the other things that drunken Christmas parties often result in is embarrassment and unplanned, unprotected sex. Demand for the over-the-counter morning-after pill goes up throughout December - in much the same way it does every weekend. But (apart from the fact that it's not 100pc effective against pregnancy) it won't protect you from an STI or indeed the embarrassment of sleeping with your colleague from two desks over who you've never really spoken to and never really liked.

Cutting loose and having fun at Christmas is all well and good but drunken infidelity, unplanned and indeed unintended sex and cringey work situations can be the result. My advice is don't get so drunk you do things you will regret or that you'll feel bad about afterwards. Always have an emergency stash of taxi money for when you just need to go home. And always carry condoms. Herpes, like puppies, is not just for Christmas.

Physical Health

A surprising number of people are actually sick over Christmas as it coincides with the coughs, colds and flu season but also because of stomach upsets. And everyone who comes to the surgery says the same thing: "I can't be sick - it's Christmas!" Which alas doesn't make much odds to bugs. The best way to avoid respiratory problems, if you are prone to them, is get the flu jab, use inhalers or nasal sprays if you're on them and avoid droplet spread - which is how most of these things are passed. So wash your hands. Don't kiss randomers. Blow your nose and cough into a tissue and bin it. Cover your face if you are next to a cougher. And wash your hands all over again.

Stomach troubles are big at Christmas too because of too much booze, too much food and food sitting round for days often out of the fridge that has half-turned by the time we eat it. I'm not going to give you advice on the best hangover cures - because the best one of all is drink less - but drinking water and having a stash of antacids and paracetamol in the house makes lots of sense. People get constipated too from sitting around a lot and simply putting too big a volume of food into themselves. On average we gain a half stone over Christmas but many of us gain three times that and we very often don't take it all off. So have a think about whether or not that third dessert is really a treat and not a threat.

Expectations: One of the main problems with Christmas is the expectation that'll be somehow perfect in that picture-perfect kind of way that the telly bombards you with and the inevitable disappointment that ensues when you realise that your family are closer to The Royle Family than the John Lewis kind. But it's really important to remember that perfectionism isn't the goal, in fact it's the enemy - it stresses you out and always leaves you falling short. Christmas should be about breaking bread with people you like. If there are presents and a tree then it's a bonus. The more relaxing and comfy it is -the better. Try not to fight with your family - it's never worth it. Try not to stress over the small stuff - it's never worth it either. The turkey is basically just a big chicken and no matter what you do it'll probably turn out dry.

Don't get too drunk or eat yourself sick and you won't go too far wrong. And don't forget batteries! They cause more murder on Christmas Day than almost any other thing. Happy Christmas to you.

@ciarakellydoc

Dr Ciara's Tips to get you through the season unscathed

1 Don't spend more than you can actually afford - It won't make Christmas better and it may well make it worse.

2 Don't drink too much - It actually lowers your mood and makes fights much more likely. Anything after a third drink rarely makes you happier.

3 Bite your tongue - Will telling your in-laws what you really think of them make anything better? No.

4 Avoid cabin-fever - Get out for a walk. It'll give you some space and a blast of endorphins.

5 Get organised - A lot of the stress comes from feeling overwhelmed. Prepare as much in advance as you can.

6 Try not to make big, emotional decisions. See how you feel about stuff in the New Year.

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