Cat relaxing over christmas

No stress here but for some, Christmas means dealing with lots of stress

A while back, I was driving down a track at night towards a farm B&B (Bed & Breakfast) when my car hit a large pot hole unexpectedly. My car bounced in and out of the depression, and I found myself tensing as I braced ready for further bumps. Sure enough there were more up ahead. I tried to go round them but some stretched right across the road and I couldn’t avoid them. Not fun. Though the B&B was lovely the approach was far from pleasant.

For some people, the run up to Christmas can feel like that farm track. Whether it’s worrying about how to deal with a seemingly awkward family member, or how to afford to buy presents, or how to get round to see all the relatives (or get out of seeing some of them), or even worrying about how to do the roast potatoes, it can seem like Christmas comes with a whole load of pot holes that result in a whole load of stress. To top it all, they can also feel they shouldn’t be feeling stressed. Asking themselves, “Why does Christmas stress me out”. This may be your experience or you may be working with those who fear coping with Christmas stress.

Read on to find out how to see Christmas stress differently and how to worry less.

How do we know we are feeling stressed about Christmas?

Stress comes in many forms. If it hangs around for a while, you may start to notice you are irritable, tense or snappy. If it starts to get chronic then you might start not sleeping very well, having digestive disorders and a whole heap of other symptoms. You’ll notice symptoms become more intense whenever the thought of Christmas occurs to you. At this time of year, that can happen several times a day. The build up to this kind of stress can start many months before.

Where is Christmas stress coming from?

It may look like the holiday period, known as Christmas, causes stress but that’s only how it appears. If you pay close attention to what is actually going on when you experience stress in relation to Christmas, you soon see it isn’t Christmas itself but the thinking you have around Christmas that is causing your feelings of worry and stress.

The reason it looks like we have a lot more stress around Christmas rather than around say any other day, like for example 5th December, is we generally have a lot more thinking around Christmas than we do around 5th December. In fact some of us can have piles and piles of thinking around it, all past or future based. Thinking about Christmas can kick off any time of the year. Some of that thinking has come around year after year for as long as we can remember.

So much so, that we’d say that thinking has taken shape as beliefs about Christmas, such as:-

  • Christmas is a time for families to get together
  • Christmas is a time to celebrate our Christian faith
  • Christmas is a time to be generous
  • Christmas dinner must be really special
  • It’s good to make an effort at Christmas
  • It’s awful to be alone at Christmas
  • I hate the commercialisation of Christmas

Then we have our specific thoughts about this Christmas. Here’s a sample just to give you an idea:

  • Is Ben’s girlfriend vegetarian or vegan?
  • I hope Aunty Beth doesn’t get drunk again this year
  • Do I have to bother with sprouts, everyone hates them?
  • What day can we get the Northern branch of the family down? I don’t know what they’re all doing
  • With Alan’s redundancy how are we going to pay for Christmas this year?
  • I’d really like a new sofa for Christmas
  • Where is everyone going to sleep?
  • I hope I can get out of the work do this year, I really hate it
  • I’d love to go to midnight mass but it’s such a long way

Just for fun, why not write your own list of thoughts about Christmas. It can be quite entertaining when you see what’s going on.

Why does our thinking create Christmas stress?

Our thinking can create stress for all kinds of reasons but there are two in particular that cause difficulty.

  1. We believe all our thoughts matter
  2. We believe thoughts about the past and future matter now (in this moment)

Let’s look at each of those in turn

1. We believe all our thoughts matter

This may sound odd but it’s true that many many thoughts drift through our minds each day to which we pay little attention. For instance, we might idly wonder what the driver in the next car does for a living when we’re stopped beside her in traffic but as soon as the queue moves off, the thought is gone. We don’t dwell on it or pay it much attention because it doesn’t matter. In fact none of our thoughts matter, until or, unless, we think they do. A lovely neighbour of mine, a retired Royal Air Force pilot who smoked like a chimney, used to say,

“Everything matters, nothing matters very much”.

Much of our experience of stress around Christmas comes from our mistaken belief that it matters a great deal. In the big scheme of things, it matters very little. It is just another day. What may help you realise that Christmas doesn’t matter much is when you realise that however you feel in the run up or during the festivities themselves, Christmas will come and go, as it always does, and you will remain substantially unchanged. That inner essence of you, the spirit of you is intact, solid and timeless whether you get worked up about Christmas or not.

That understanding, if you can really feel it, takes the pressure off. Even if you can’t feel it, it is still true. The other trap we can fall into is losing our sense of this moment, right now.

2. We believe thoughts about the past or future are helpful to us right now

Most of our thinking, when we look closely, is about the past or the future. Neither of which actually exist except via our thinking about them.

Memories from the past and plans for the future can be fun and pleasant but oftentimes our thoughts about the past and future are unpleasant and make us feel uncomfortable. That in itself isn’t a problem. It only becomes a problem when we get caught up in those thoughts and start to lose ourselves in them or worse start all kinds of internal debates, arguments, judgments, criticism and opinions about past memories or future plans.

That gets us in a mess.

We get caught in loops where we turn the same thoughts over and over in our minds. More thoughts pile in until we are caught in a very constrained mental space a bit like being stuck in a lift with very loud piped music.

Very few of our thoughts are about the present moment. Most of them, especially if we find our mind crowded with thoughts, are based on the future or the past.  They are generally not helpful to us, as I found out recently.

Early in December I was having lunch with my daughter and found myself getting tetchy about arrangements for various family get togethers over the Christmas holidays. I was a bit snappy and complained about how difficult it was to organise things because people didn’t respond in a timely manner. My daughter got a bit sulky.

I suddenly realised I’d been doing an awful lot of thinking about the get togethers but this was actually the first time I had mentioned Christmas to my daughter either in person or by text or email. As soon as I saw that, the tension eased and I laughed! I apologised for being tetchy and told her I just realised I hadn’t spoken to her before about Christmas. She agreed, no I hadn’t.

All that thinking had been going on in my own head. A heated conversation in which I played all the parts. I still don’t know quite how all the logistics might work but that thought isn’t bothering me so much any more. When we pause for a second, some of the things we stress about at Christmas, can look a bit silly or funny to us quite easily but what about more intense emotions?

What if Christmas brings up painful memories?

If Christmas has always been a time of painful memories, how can you stop yourself feeling stressed during the festive season? My father passed away suddenly on Boxing Day in the year 2000, so I know how this period can be a time of sorrow as well as joy. There is no need to try and stop the feelings of sadness, you can’t anyway, but you can see, it doesn’t matter if you feel sad, snarky, miserable or any number of other feelings about Christmas. For starters you are not alone.

Many, many people have mixed feelings about Christmas. The stress comes when we start criticising, judging and berating ourselves for how we feel. How we feel in the end doesn’t matter, in the sense that whatever we are feeling just now, will soon pass, all by itself, to be replaced with a new feeling.

Like getting to a B&B down a bumpy farm track, you may have a few pot holes in your thinking about Christmas. Some of them you might be able to drive round, others you’ll fall into. Christmas is going to happen anyway, so what about you let thoughts and feelings about Christmas come and go, without worrying too much about them?

Do share this article with others who might find it helpful.

What have you seen in your thinking about Christmas? Let me know in the comments below.

I offer coaching conversations (the first session is complimentary) if you’d like to explore this further. Take a look at the options here.