Self guarding against stress and depression at Christmas
Whether you are a Bah Humbug sort of person who hates everything Christmassy until 24th December or one who counts down the days and winds everyone else up with decorations and eggnog for weeks ahead, Christmas can be highly stressful and for some people simply depressing.
The opportunities for family conflict, overeating, over drinking and over spending are many. There are also the people who simply find it too difficult; whether they just don’t “Do” Christmas or have recently lost a loved one or find themselves alone this time round as family grows up and moves away. The bottom line is too much stress for too long can lead to depression.
The stress side of Christmas is often self-inflicted. We want everything to be “perfect”. We rush around finding the perfect Christmas tree and decorating the house “just-so”. We seek out the perfect recipes for the most delectable celebration meal ever. We spend days and a small fortune searching for the perfect present for everyone, the cat included.
We stuff our diary with more events than we have days for and may even worry about what to wear for them all (did Jane see me in this dress last week or not?). These lead to insomnia, irritability, headaches, and even over eating and over drinking in an attempt to cope with it all.
With a little bit of planning ahead we can choose to cope with Christmas, and it is our choice. Here’s some ideas how:
- SEE – that stands for sleep (get enough of it, don’t burn the candle at both ends), eat sensibly (one mince pie not three) and exercise (even a daily half hour walk round the block will make a difference).
- NO – learn to say the hardest two letter word in the dictionary: “No.” Forget perfection. What really counts? Set realistic expectations on everyone and everything. Don’t be pushed or bullied into doing more than is reasonable or more than you can cope with. Practice saying no, in your head, out loud in the bathroom and kitchen. Think of the occasions where saying no can be good and practice them. If you are always the one who rescues the work’s do, make it clear you can’t sort it this year and someone else will have to step up to the plate, then stick to it. Be realistic in terms of decorations, trees, meals out, meals in and gift giving.
- PLAN AHEAD – here are some scenarios.
- When I was just divorced I knew that first Christmas was going to be hard. My children had a dad and that would never change but I did not want him in my home at Christmas nor did I want to go to his. A friend stepped in and offered to let us all go to her house that year and join their usual family and friends get together. It meant my children got to see their Dad and I did not have to deal with him much. A practical solution.
- My Dad died in October and the first Christmas without him was really challenging. At lunch we toasted absent family and friends and shed some tears (well lots really). But we knew he would want us to enjoy the occasion and not spend it moping around. We told stories about him, remembering cherished memories of things he did or said, shared more tears and were able to move through a difficult time together. Years on we still toast the absent with love and fond memories.
- When my children started dating I pointedly raised the question of who was going to spend Christmas where and with whom. I have an agreement with my two – they may share Christmas with partners/in-laws but I was not prepared to let them go away every Christmas, only every second. It has worked well and subject to the present state of relationships I have had one child or both children home for Christmas and/or New Year and quite happily added the partners as well. If needed in-laws would be included. If we are away at Christmas I have ensured that both my children were spending Christmas with a family if not with us. Pushing the boat out we have had two Christmas lunches – one on the day and one a few days earlier/later when the children came home with their partner.
- What about overeating? Christmas is a really hard time to stick to a diet with but with a little bit of thought you can achieve a modicum of sensibility – allow yourself one mince pie but not three. Eat that one slowly and mindfully, savouring every tasty mouthful. And if you are not enjoying it (too thick pastry, not enough filling, etc) – stop eating it! Don’t buy the second box of chocolates just because they are discounted (unless you know you can give them away quickly as a present to the office staff or similar). I pile up vegetables on my plate and have one medium sized potato refusing all efforts at getting me to take more. Do you know the size of your stomach is about the size of your two fists together? Why over load it with those huge platefuls? Skipping breakfast if you are going to have a heavy lunch or skipping lunch if you are going out to dinner may be useful and eating slowly, chewing every mouthful thoroughly is helpful too. Stop when you are full; yes, I know so easy to write and a lot harder to do!
- What about over drinking – a very personal issue but having a soft drink in between the alcoholic ones is sensible. It’s how you refer to the contents of your glass that may be important in limiting the quantity of alcohol consumed. A cola with ice looks like it is a mixer with a spirit in it. A tonic water with ice and a slice of lemon looks like a gin and tonic and no one needs to know it isn’t! Sparkling water with a dash of bitters can be almost anything and so can ginger ale. Keeping your wine cool with ice in it is a useful tip too (except to wine purists of course!). Also remember that a little ice is good and more is better because as it melts it dilutes the alcohol. Choosing low alcohol drinks or diet sodas is practical to reduce calories. Also learn to say “I’ll have another in a minute” or simply “No thank you, not now.”
- Over spending – nothing spoils Christmas more than worrying how to pay the bills in January if you have over done it. It is really useful if you agree with family members on a spend limit for Christmas presents. Some families deliberately set a low limit and seek creativity in the gifts – bargain shopping, handmade, etc. It makes people think about their gifts. If you can’t avoid the spending try planning and setting limits: £a for each child and £b for each adult. Write yourself a list of who you have to get presents for, draft a few ideas of what they would like or appreciate and set your budget. Then stick to it. If you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it. Don’t let the emotional blackmail of children who simply “must have” the latest gadget or gizmos sucker you into debt if you can’t afford it – the important lesson they need to learn and we need to demonstrate is to live within our means. They will not be emotionally harmed by not getting it and may start saving or seeking a part time job to get it for themselves (now wouldn’t that be good?). There is huge satisfaction in ticking off each item on the list knowing the job is done and within your budget too. I know of some people who buy presents for next year in this year’s sales. Now that is planning ahead, just remember where you hide them! I have always worked on the basis that birthday presents are more important than Christmas ones in terms of personalisation and value. This helps with the budget and decisions about what to get.
- Family conflict can ruin Christmas (or any other family get together). Saying simply and firmly “Let’s discuss that another time, not today it’s Christmas” is a useful phrase. Another one is “I can see how you may feel that way” and not be drawn to comment (regardless of your personal opinions don’t take the bait). Simply acknowledging their feelings on an issue is often enough. Making your escape can be useful too – if in the lounge go to the kitchen, declare the children need checking on or you need the bathroom or suggest it’s a good time for everyone to get out for a walk and some fresh air.
- Planning your day if you are going to be alone is a good way to deal with Christmas. You can plan little treats for yourself – phone calls to family or a tasty tipple or meal at certain times, a walk or a lie in the bath undisturbed, a favourite film on television or other media. A friend of mine when she is alone at Christmas volunteers at a homeless shelter and shares her day with people in need. It keeps her busy after she has phoned her son in the morning (he lives in the southern hemisphere and she in the north). Helping others is soul food for her, she gets home satisfied and weary, well worth it. Another alone at Christmas tactic is to let a few people you know and trust who may be at a loose end too know you will be alone and suggest you get together, even if it’s just for a walk or tea and Christmas cake. We used to have a big family get together at Christmas each family sharing the role of host in turn and everyone pitching in to help with the preparation, catering and cleaning up, we made space for others at our table and there was always an extra person or three who joined us.
- Another suggestion if you know you find the holidays hard and have been diagnosed with depression is to get your depression support group involved. Offer to be available on the phone if someone (or several) needs a friend and vice-versa. Find someone who deals with the issue of depression at Christmas in a way very similar or very different to you and share your coping mechanisms, planning ahead to try something different and conquer the Christmas blues.
Finally, don’t do it all yourself – share it, delegate it or simply don’t do it. Be realistic about what you can cope with and remember it is a season to be jolly, so do enjoy it.