Christmas is often portrayed as a period of happiness, relaxation and celebration where miracles can happen.
Throw in social media and a barrage of perfectly decorated homes, perfectly curated feasts and posed happy families, and we expect that ours will, of course, look and feel the same.
However, for many, that shiny representation of the festive season feels far from reality.
The Christmas period can be stressful due to trying to manage work and festive stress, plus seasonal factors including financial burdens, overindulging, family conflict, feelings of loneliness and our own and other’s expectations of how Christmas should be.
The problem with stress is that it can impair our attention, productivity, self-control and general ability to make decisions.
When we’re stressed, we tend to spend more money and take greater financial risks, plus our bodies also store more fat when we’re stressed.
And all of that means that stress can unfairly make us more stressed!
Learning to manage your expectations and cope with stressful circumstances can minimise disappointment and mean you can appreciate Christmas (and not have to worry about those extra stress kilos at least).
Here are a few science-backed strategies to help you manage stress during the festive period.
Set only a few Christmas goals
Focus on one or two important Christmas goals.
For many people, stress at Christmas isn’t about having a lack of goals, but rather having too many goals.
Too many goals reduces bandwidth and willpower.
You have a choice over how you spend your holiday season. Take time to reflect on what is truly important to you and what you can have control over, and base your goals around these.
Manage your expectations and plan accordingly
Our expectations of the festive season are often clouded by our brain’s inbuilt tendency to be unrealistically optimistic about what we can achieve — something referred to as optimism bias.
This bias means we fail to account for setbacks or negative events.
Similarly, most of us also suffer from planning fallacy, where, despite previous experience, we continue to underestimate how much time and effort tasks will take to complete.
The combination of these two biases means we expect a fun, relaxing, happy Christmas, and instead can end up with one that is stressful, complex and chaotic because we don’t plan accordingly.
Knowing this, give yourself some additional leeway and time to achieve your tasks, plan for setbacks, and bundle what you need to do with an activity you enjoy doing, termed temptation bundling.
Behavioural scientists also recommend using ‘if-then’ plans to consider barriers you might face.
For example, ‘if’ I start to feel my blood boil, ‘then’ I will leave the room. Or ‘if’ I feel stressed about too many tasks on Christmas day, ‘then’ I will ask for help.
Take time to consider your previous behaviour as well, including any unhealthy coping behaviour or previous blunders.
Do you generally cover your tense inner emotions with a smile (which researchers term ‘surface acting’) or avoid situations altogether by consuming excessive alcohol, food, or avoiding certain situations or people (termed avoidance coping)?
Identifying your go-to unhealthy coping mechanisms is key to putting a plan into place to overcome them.
Prioritise social time
Positive social support is tied to greater psychological and physical wellness.
We are 30 times more likely to laugh when interacting with others, making us feel happier by releasing the happiness hormone dopamine in our brain, and strengthening our bonds with people.
You may need to socialise with people who fray your nerves during the festive season, so make sure you make time for those who calm them too.
Share your Christmas goals and tasks with people you genuinely like and want to spend time with. Book in group activities. Ask for help to achieve your goals and tasks, or ask for help to distract yourself from too many tasks or stressful situations.
Another great option is volunteer somewhere such as a hospital, community centre or nursing home. Volunteering is a great way to be social, improve your sense of purpose, boost self-esteem and support people who may be going through a difficult time.
Recreate the concept of giving
Studies have shown that acts of kindness and prosocial behaviour reduces stress, anxiety and depression of the giver and the receiver. And we’re not talking huge gestures. Acts of kindness can be holding an elevator for someone, volunteering, donating clothing, or even just saying thank you.
Giving thanks and feeling grateful can make you feel happier and less stressed, and easy ways to do this include organising games such as Secret Santa or Stealing Santa.
For these games, you can make gift-giving fun, and even as an adult, playing games has been shown to reduce stress and enhance coping.
If you are going to spend, consider spending on experiences rather than material purchases. Experiential spending brings us greater pleasure in the moment and when anticipating or remembering purchases.
Be kind to yourself
Stress can make us more reactive, so take time to switch off, be mindful of your feelings and relax. Give yourself permission to do the things that you enjoy without the nagging guilt.
And although it’s the holidays, it’s also useful to try to keep to parts of your routine in place, such as exercise and sleeping well, which can reduce stress through physiological changes to the body.
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, try to bring yourself back to where you are, slow your breathing down and try some mindfulness or yoga exercises.
Most of these activities you can do almost anywhere and for little or no cost.
Reframe your thinking
As humans, we have a tendency to register negative stimuli and events more readily, and we also tend to dwell on these events. So, if your Christmas isn’t great, or doesn’t go the way you’d hoped, try to reframe your thinking.
Focus on what has been successful and celebrate the small wins.
Try to see stress as helpful. In other words, “feeling a little stress will help me get the job done”.
A Harvard University study found that people who were told to view a stress response as helpful actually felt less stressed, less anxious and more confident. They also experienced physiological changes that were most similar to feelings of joy and courage than physical stress itself.
So if you can picture yourself getting through a stressful situation via adopting a growth mindset, you are more likely to actually experience growth from that event.
So with a little behavioural science behind you, you will grow from this Christmas period if you believe you can.