Christmas Day and the social events leading up to it can, frankly, be some people’s idea of hell. Being constantly surrounded by colleagues, friends, and family, including some people that you don’t like, can be particularly anxiety-inducing, but Dr. Watts assures that this is perfectly normal.
“We place a lot of importance on having a good time and enjoying the celebrations at Christmas. We are bombarded with advertising from November onwards showing us how to have the perfect Christmas with our friends and family, and it can feel like it’s a lot to live up to. There is a lot of pressure to have the “perfect Christmas” nowadays, and this can come from other people, from those advertisements (external pressure), or it can come from our own thought processes and beliefs – for example, ‘I must invite all of the family around and cook the perfect Christmas dinner for them or the day will be ruined’ (internal pressure).”
“For many people, one of the most stressful parts of Christmas is spending it with family. In the real world, outside of the sparkly, happy adverts, the reality is that many of us don’t have perfect relationships with our families. At Christmas, we might feel obliged to spend more time than we ordinarily would with people. Even if we get along very well with those people, we can start to feel socially burned out. In fact, many people don’t have perfect relationships with their families, and social burnout, especially for introverts, is a real concern during the festive season.”
Christmas Day can bring back difficult memories, leading to some people experiencing anxiety around the holiday. Christmas is, typically, thought of as the most wonderful time of the year.
But Dr Watts explains that “Christmas can bring back lots of difficult memories and make us think more about some of the painful or traumatic experiences we have been through in the past, and these experiences often have links to our families in some way. We might also feel sad about family members or friends who are no longer with us, and we can become especially aware of their absence at Christmas when the rest of our family and friends are around.
“Christmas anxiety can sometimes stem from our childhood experiences, and it can be very triggering for some people, bringing back memories of difficult things that have happened in the past. For example, some people report having had a very critical parent who, for example, might have made comments about their weight if they received some chocolates as a gift. Experiences like these can have a profound impact on how we view ourselves and how we feel about ourselves as adults. We might have to spend time with people who remind us of difficult things that have happened to us in the past.”
5 Coping mechanisms to help combat anxiety this Christmas
To help with these feelings and make Christmas more bearable, Dr Watts has provided five expert coping mechanisms.
- Set boundaries and make sure you are prioritising your needs. If you feel like spending the whole of Christmas Day with family is going to be too stressful or make you so anxious that you can’t enjoy the day, if possible, plan to spend just a couple of hours with them. If you live alone and are going elsewhere for Christmas Day, you can then take yourself back to your own place to do things that you want to do for the rest of the day.
- Make sure to engage in calming and relaxing activities outside of being social. We have three emotional regulation systems: threat, drive, and soothe. At Christmas, our drive system is often activated as we rush around doing things and seeing people, and our threat system is often activated by all of the stress and anxiety that Christmas can bring. Our soothing system often gets overlooked, so make sure you are spending time trying to activate this system by doing things that are calming and relaxing. Make sure you take time to slow things down now and then and to “just be”.
- Discuss your thoughts on Christmas anxiety with friends. We often buy into the messaging we get from advertising, showing us what the perfect Christmas should look like. Try to remind yourself that this isn’t reality. You are not the only one who has difficult relationships within their family or who feels anxious about Christmas. Often, an honest, open discussion with friends will reveal that they too experience similar anxieties around Christmas and that they also don’t have the perfect family.
- Plan something nice you can do alone after Christmas. Remind yourself that Christmas won’t last forever. Plan something nice, just for yourself, in the days following Christmas. Having something to look forward to can help you get through the day itself. This can be as simple as a walk in the countryside, taking yourself on a coffee date, or taking a luxurious bubble bath.
- Go outside for a walk or take a moment alone on Christmas Day itself. Take time out if you start to feel overwhelmed. Take the dog out for a walk, or just take yourself out for a walk. You could even say you are going to make a quick phone call and go into another room for a few minutes to decompress and take some deep breaths. There are many breathing exercises available on YouTube that can be helpful in managing anxiety.