Friday 28 October 2016

Well-being: Carefree Christmas

Put self-care at the top of your Christmas to-do list

Published 15/12/2015 | 02:30

Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert

Credit union visit, nativity play, doctor's appointment, Christmas party… So read a friend's diary entry from last week. This, I hasten to add, was before she even got to the small matter of her nine-to-five job and her ongoing endeavours to decorate the house, stock the larder and buy gifts for her son's teacher, her next-door neighbour and everyone in between.

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It's a terrible cliché, but I honestly don't know how parents of young children cope during the festive season. It's supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, yet for some, it's also the most stressful.

Of course, it doesn't necessarily have to be this way. Festive hysteria is a choice: we can buy into it, just as we can opt out of it.

Those that don't get swept up in the rush of festive madness are the people that prioritise their self-care. They know that it doesn't really matter if they miss Christmas drinks with their book club or fail to make their home look like a Laura Ashley catalogue.

"Good enough" is their motto, partly because it makes life significantly easier; partly because they realise that perfection is illusory.

This isn't to say that they are immune to seasonal stress. They, too, experience financial pressure, time constraints and heaving schedules. The difference is that they acknowledge that the Christmas period has inherent triggers and stressors, and they plan accordingly.

Family dynamics are the pebble in the shoe for many people. They can handle the shopping crowds on Black Friday, Manic Monday and Christmas Eve, but put them in a room with a certain family member for more than 10 minutes and they'll explode. The tendency for our familial roles - golden child, black sheep, martyr, jester, etc - to become more pronounced during the festive season only compounds the tension.

Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert touched on this subject during a recent Oprah The Life You Want Weekend tour: "I had a great teacher in India who said to me, 'If you think you're spiritual and evolved and enlightened, go home for Christmas and see how it goes'," she laughed.

According to Gilbert, prickly family relationships offer an opportunity for us to grow.

"These are the greatest spiritual teachers of your life," she continues. "And when you go into these situations where you feel your back going up and you're bristling - watch it. Because this is an opportunity to have a real spiritual lesson where it counts, where the rubber meets the road."

Likewise, we ought to be mindful that we may not have seen certain family members for a year or more - and we may not like what we see upon their return.

Colm Tóibín, writing in the introduction of psychiatrist Ivor Browne's autobiography, shares a fascinating insight about the festive season. He was a guest for a late lunch in Browne's home one New Year's Eve, during which the phone rang and rang and rang.

Eventually Toibin asked Brown, who was then the chief psychiatrist for the Eastern Health Board, why he was receiving so many phone calls.

"All of them had the same problem," he writes. "A member of their family had come home for Christmas and over the seven or eight days since their arrival, it had become increasingly apparent that they needed psychiatric care."

Toibin then asked the psychiatrist why this phenomenon was reserved to Christmas. "Drink," he answered.

"Scarce light. A return to a family or a home place with many unresolved associations."

It's a story that makes rows over the remote control blur into insignificance…

Christmas is also a reminder of the family and friends that we have lost along the way. Give yourself permission to feel sad, even during the season to be jolly. Likewise, don't be afraid to question tradition. If you find visiting the cemetery on Christmas morning too emotional, say it. You might discover that you're not the only family member who'd prefer to visit a few days earlier.

Sometimes we decide to reconnect with those we've fallen out with over the festive season. However, big decisions and a cocktail of mulled wine and feel-good hormones don't always mix. Sit on it and see if you feel the same way in mid-January.

Staying present is perhaps the greatest challenge during the festive season. Morning rituals are always helpful, but at this time of year, they are crucial. You don't need to be sitting cross-legged or in front of a gong. You don't even need to get out of bed. Ten minutes of stillness - wherever it is - will put you in good stead for the rest of the day.

This is also a good time to practise mantras. If you're a bah-humbug type, the late Wayne Dyer recommended the affirmation: 'I'm going to approach the holidays with a sense of joyful anticipation and wonder, just like I did when I was a child.'

Either way, self-care should be at the top of the to-do list, whether it's meditation, restorative yoga or massage. Belly breathing is another great ally - particularly when you're in heavy traffic and long queues.

The alternate day method is helpful too. If you have a party tonight, try to allow for a relaxing night in tomorrow. Likewise, alternating alcohol-free and chocolate-Santa-free days will help maintain a degree of self-control.

When we prioritise our self-care, we begin to realise that the festive season is only as stressful as we allow it to be.

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