It was a tradition that Christmas puddings were made the Sunday before Advent which was aptly called ‘Stir-Up Sunday.’ This allowed sufficient time for the pudding to ‘mature’ i.e. the flavours of the spices to develop and the fruits to plump up. In some households, there was the additional tradition that everyone in the family take a turn at stirring the pudding mix before it was put into bowls for steaming. So begins the unique, sensory bombardment of Christmas! The smells of baking, spices and mulled wine, the glow of lights, the sounds of Christmas carols drifting over the airways or delivered enthusiastically by carol singers. 
 
Christmas is steeped in traditions and we put a lot of personal and financial effort in to making sure it is that “most perfect time of the year.” It is a time of family gatherings, meeting friends, sharing food and exchanging gifts. It is a time of rest, hope and renewal as one year comes to a close and another begins. 
 
In therapy, we get to see the many difficulties people encounter this time of year. Christmas is the same as the rest of the year but more intense and with the stakes raised: more family around, more food and alcohol, more issues around consumption, control and comparisons. A variety of stressors abound. 
 
While some of us joyfully reconvene as families, others hope that the Christmas magic will mend difficult and damaged relationships. The prospect of the family gatherings can be a source of dread and anxiety. Those family members who know that Christmas magic is not enough to put the pieces back together, is not enough to change the family dynamic, is not enough to undo deep hurt and pain, may choose to stay away. They try to come to terms with the loss of the ideal family. Staying away may be the healthiest choice and it is a brave one. A little support may be needed to negotiate the internal and imposed guilt, the sense of loss and anger that this had to be their experience. 
 
Losses during the year, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship or an economic setback, are experienced more intensely during this time. People dig deep to keep the best side out. Sometimes a word of acknowledgement, an understanding nod or gesture, can go a long way in helping them along. 
 
Loneliness is not the domain of those living alone, with no one to spend Christmas with, but for each person that feels lonely in the midst of others at Christmas parties and gatherings. 
 
So how do we navigate Christmas difficulties and challenges? Just like the pudding making one month before Christmas, preparation is key. Like any other time of the year, things are less likely to lead to crisis if we see them coming and have thought in advance about how we can best deal with them when they arise. This includes avoiding stressful situations by being clear about intentions in advance: where you will be spending what days and with whom. Learn how to 'press pause' when asked to do something that will cause stress, by saying for example, "let me see if that's possible and I will get back to you" and being very definite in saying no if you need to, without offering reasons. No is no, nobody questions a yes. It is okay to stay in your own home for Christmas and you should be permitted to do so if this is what you want, without enduring guilt tripping by others. If you are the one behind the guilt tripping, ask yourself why it has to be that way and reality check it.  
 
What would it be like to set up new traditions, your own traditions, in your home? Many people lose touch with their home city, town or village due to issues in their childhood home. This is a pity as that city, town or village is part of your identity and you may have had lots of positive experiences there, that were independent of the home. It is okay to renew your relationship with that place, on your terms, without it involving the home. A short overnight or weekend visit staying in a nearby hotel or rented accommodation, choosing where you want to go, who you want to see and where or who you would like to introduce your partner or family to.  
 
Don’t get drawn into expensive gifting just because it is expected or you think it is. Manage those expectations for yourself and others by stating you have a budget this year or by suggesting a Kris Kindl approach to family gifting. 
 
Spend time with the people that bring positive energy to your life and limit your time with those that drain yours. Try this the rest of the year too! 
 
Despite an initial stimulant effect, alcohol is a depressant, slowing down brain function and neural activity. The side effects of alcohol consumption can induce anxiety, stress and precipitate depression. It can also precipitate behaviour changes through reducing inhibitions. Limit your own consumption or your exposure to those that become aggressive or offensive with alcohol. Bad behaviour at the work do is always remarked on and may have damaging consequences if recorded on social media. As an observer, you don't have to help but consider not doing harm either. The food excesses of Christmas are a challenge for those with an eating disorder and a healthy navigation strategy needs some thought and support in advance.  
 
If things become too difficult, don’t struggle alone and seek professional help and support. Keep in mind that the advertising hype and images of a perfect Christmas are a work of fiction – don’t let it be your Christmas blueprint! Remember the nativity scene that Christmas celebrates – it was very basic and simple but still special. Keep active over the holidays, get out in the fresh air and enjoy what nature has to offer this time of year. 
 
Wishing you a peaceful Festive Season! 
 
Get in touch here if you need some help and support at this time of year. 
 
Tagged as: Stressful Times
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