Christmas can be a significant source of stress. Photo / 123RF
Here’s a gift of coping strategies for when the time of peace and plum pudding turns to custard.
Close your eyes and clench your fist. I mean squeeze hard (without hurting yourself) and concentrate on
that feeling for at least five seconds. Hold your breath as you do. Now, let all that tension flow away as you relax, slowly breathing out, all while attending to the feeling of letting it go. Good work.
If you want a bit more exercise, do it again, with the other hand. Or your feet. For a good workout, start with your feet and work up your body, tensing and relaxing, until you get to your neck, throat, jaw, forehead.
Practise this a bit until you can clench the different body parts without tensing other areas at the same time. After that, you can attempt the speed version, doing groups of muscles – lower body, abdomen and chest, upper body and arms, and finally your head.
Advanced practice means you don’t need to clench the muscles first, instead focusing on any tension you already hold, and releasing that. Welcome to progressive relaxation. This is a classic anxiety-reduction technique.
I mention this because, well, ‘tis the season to be jolly. Fa-la-la, season of joy, and all that guff. And if I have calaculated deadlines right, this issue of the Listener comes to you shortly before Christmas.
But maybe the festive season is just one bloody great tension headache: four gifts that were too expensive, three family members squabbling, two Christmas turkeys that don’t taste like they should, and a partridge in your pear tree. What’s the sod doing there anyway? Get out of my tree!
Christmas can also be a significant source of stress. A 2017 UK public health survey suggests that for three-quarters of us, the No 1 yuletide stressor is family conflict. Ill health and the kind of illness that’s self-inflicted come in at Nos 2 and 3. Spending too much money is No 6 and the pressure to deliver a Hallmark Channel Christmas is eighth on this hit parade.
It’s too late to tell you not to spend up large (or larger than you can afford) at a time of not-seen-since-the-80s inflation, so let’s focus on making this as tolerable as it can be.
Ironically, the same survey says spending time with friends and family and giving and getting presents are among the top 10 benefits of Christmas. This suggests these are a double-edged sword.
So, when Uncle Bob starts ranting about Jacinda or the bald National guy he calls “Luxton”, or your triplet nephews flip out in a sugar-fuelled rampage, you can try clenching your fist (or maybe a tight grin?).
But you can also try “reappraisal”. This is one of the strategies that people can use to regulate their emotional experiences.
There are others – avoidance (quickly sculling the last of the Lindauer and praying for darkness), for example. But remember that self-inflicted illness is one of the top 10 baddies of Christmas. Uncle Bob may be gone when you wake up, but you’ll still have that hangover.
Reappraisal means reframing what you’re experiencing in a way that takes the sting away. Maybe the turkey is dry, but consider the people who don’t get any turkey at all.
Sure, the triplets are a handful, but at least you don’t have to live with them.
Or you could try acceptance (it is what it is and sometime in the next three hours they will be gone). Both of these are more “adaptive” forms of regulating your emotions than blowing your top or getting blotto.
For now, though, I wish you the best this holiday season and, assuming you survive the turkeypocalypse, I’ll see you in the New Year.