Friday 23 August 2019

How to keep your cool this Christmas

stress
stress
Diane Keating in Love the Coopers

Antonia Hoyle

Santa's due, the presents aren't even wrapped and your mother-in-law is talking all the way through the Strictly special. Well, stuff the stuffing, we need to relax and learn to enjoy the festive season.

Surveying the toys cluttering our living room floor - and the lack of any paper to wrap them in - I remembered my husband Chris's promise to be in charge of everything gift-related. Yet it was midday on Christmas Eve and, as the situation stood, Santa would be unable to deliver.

Once again, I concluded as my blood pressure started to rise, it was up to me to work through the chores needed to make the festive season run smoothly. I could have reminded myself that Chris had bought the presents for our two children in the first place. But a belting hangover, combined with the fact that I still hadn't made the pudding for St Stephen's Day, and panic that I had run out of time to post Christmas cards to even my closest friends, meant I was already volatile.

So, instead of swallowing my frustration and realising that, in the grand scheme of things, this wasn't a big deal, I flew into an all-too- familiar rage.

"Why do I have to do everything?" I hissed at Chris, before stomping out to the supermarket and snatching the few gaudy rolls of wrapping paper still left on the shelves.

I simmered for hours and even as I apologised for my overreaction, I knew it wouldn't be the last time my festive fury got the better of me. This might be the season to be jolly - but it is equally synonymous with seething rows. Endless social gatherings, expensive shopping trips, exhausting to-do lists and demanding relatives, compounded by copious amounts of alcohol and the claustrophobia of having everyone crowded at home together, can all create a pressure cooker of tension.

Underpinning it all is the atmosphere of enforced merriment and the expectation that we should be having the time of our lives.

"We have been overexposed to festive perfection on social media, through advertisements and celebrity images," explains relationship therapist Marisa Peer.

"We now believe we have to have fabulous food, an immaculately decorated house, well-behaved children and perfect figures to showcase new dresses at endless parties. And this isn't just for a day any more, but an entire festive fortnight."

Women are especially susceptible - research has found we are twice as likely to feel under pressure at Christmas as men, with 61pc of us describing the festive period as the most stressful time of the whole year. And all too often, we have only ourselves to blame.

While assuming the mantle of domestic goddess might not be a priority the rest of the year, something about Christmas can bring out an unfathomable urge to martyr ourselves in pursuit of perfection.

Delegation

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Diane Keating in Love the Coopers
 

It's not necessarily the case that our menfolk aren't willing to help - one study found that 48pc of women won't trust their partner to prepare for Christmas at all, preferring instead to push themselves to exhaustion.

"Women don't delegate," says Peer. 'We mistakenly conflate our festive efforts with a reflection of our worth, and insist on doing all this work ourselves so everyone thinks we're amazing.'

Little wonder we risk meltdown - especially if, like me, you are prone to outbursts anyway.

It's not that I don't like Christmas - I love it - but as a people-pleaser, the pressure (largely self-inflicted) to make it perfect for everyone puts me on edge from the start of December.

By the middle of the month, I'm frazzled and more likely than ever to fly off the handle. During one shameful Christmas shopping trip, I screamed at a department store's customer services manager for not immediately being able to tell me where the Frozen jigsaw puzzles were.

I have sworn at my Christmas tree because it shed its needles before I had put the decorations up, and tearfully accused my husband of deliberately getting a stomach bug on the big day and, therefore, not being able to enjoy it as much as I wanted him to.

More often than not, I take my anger out on myself. Last year, I grew so demoralised by the sight of my mince-pie-inflated stomach that I pulled off the brand new sequinned top I'd bought for a Christmas party and stretched it until the seams ripped, before hurling it across the room.

Of course, none of this is rational, but throw in hangovers (which cause low blood-sugar levels, prompting irritation) and stress-induced sleepless nights, and petty squabbles are bound to arise.

Tense

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Four Christmases
 

My friend Louise recalls a screaming row she had with her ex over how best to cook the chestnuts for Christmas lunch.

"It was the first time we'd cooked Christmas dinner for a family of nine. Things were already tense in the kitchen," says Louise, a fellow writer.

"He said we should cook the chestnuts ahead of schedule and reheat them, which I thought would make them unpleasantly hard. I thought we should cook them with the turkey.

"It started as an exchange of hissed instructions, then rose to a crescendo of me shrieking, 'Why can't you ever just let me do anything without interfering?'

"It was all because of the stress of wanting to impress and make everything marvellous. My family genuinely would not have cared about a hard chestnut - but they probably minded about the massive row."

And the more you hype up the importance of Christmas, the more tempers are likely to fray, as my friend Clare, a diehard Yuletide fan, found out.

"Christmas has always made me feel warm inside. As a child, our house seemed much happier at this time of year, so I've always made a huge effort with my own family," says Clare, a mother of three.

Unfortunately, her husband Jon doesn't share her enthusiasm, with tension reaching a head last year when she forked out over €40 on a nativity set for each child to keep in their bedroom.

"Jon said it was excessive and I instantly grew defensive, accusing him of being an idiot who sucked the marrow out of life," she recalls. "After accusing me of 'beating him around the head' with Christmas, he stormed out."

Of course, it doesn't help that Christmas prompts a consumerist frenzy that pushes our finances, as well as our patience, to the limit. The average amount spent on presents is €500 to €800, with the bulk of that going on our children.

When our offspring - too young to understand gift-opening etiquette - don't react with the gratitude we'd like, it is easy to lose our cool.

One friend locked herself in the bathroom in floods of tears on Christmas morning after her three-year-old tearfully reproached her for buying the wrong Paw Patrol pyjamas.

"It took all my willpower not to match his tantrum. I'd queued for ages in the Christmas rush to buy them and wondered why I'd bothered," she says.

Resentment

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Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman in a scene from Love Actually
 

Part of the problem is that women are more prone to people-pleasing than men.

"We expect people to be psychic - banging about in a huff wrapping presents instead of saying we need help," says Peer. "But suppressing our feelings leads to resentment, which erupts like Mount Vesuvius, spoiling things for everyone."

And accordng to anger management coach, Emily Thornton, we then behave completely out of character.

"When we're really angry, the cerebral cortex (the rational part of our brain) is overridden by the amygdala (the part of our brain linked to detecting threats)," she explains.

"Once the amygdala is involved, we are incapable of thinking logically. Adrenaline floods the bloodstream, along with testosterone. We become more aggressive and our emotional response is distorted. Yet, we can help prime our bodies to reduce angry outbursts this Christmas.

"Rich food and copious amounts of alcohol go hand in hand with Christmas but play havoc with our moods," says Thornton. "Making sure at least a few evenings over the festive period are booze-free can do wonders for your temper, as will exercise."

But there is no need to go overboard, she adds.

"Intense cardio can actually make you feel more stressed by boosting levels of cortisol in the body; but a gentle activity like walking or yoga can boost endorphins, the brain's happy hormones."

Peer, meanwhile, says a sense of perspective is essential.

"Try to see Christmas as a day, not a month-long extravaganza. Learn to delegate - get the kids to decorate the tree, and don't apologise for allocating jobs."

Above all, we would do well to remember this is the season of goodwill, not impeccable standards.

"Nobody will remember whether the tree looks amazing or the smoked salmon has been taken out of the fridge in time," says Peer. "But they will remember laughter, warmth and a festive atmosphere. Christmas is supposed to be a holiday, after all."

This year, I intend to calm down and enjoy it.

Herald

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