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Tips for surviving Christmas: Is it true that most people have a miserable time?

Surviving Christmas

Someone once said to me, that most people have a miserable time at Christmas. Now while this isn’t true for everyone, to me it highlights the gap between the hype and the reality for many people.

Spending time with family over the Christmas period can re-ignite old difficulties and familiar patterns of relating. And any cracks in your relationships, deepen as you spend a greater amount of time together. It may be hard to admit to mixed feelings about spending time with family. You are supposed to look forward to it, but difficulties from the past often re-emerge at Christmas.

There is additional strain from the financial pressure too. Sometimes the anticipation and expectation can lead to feelings of disappointment.

If you are on your own, Christmas can heighten feelings of loss and isolation. It is a time of togetherness, so it can be a struggle if your family is not together.

Tips to alleviate disappointment

  • Recognise that reality is not going to be exactly like your expectation, and may not even approximate it. There is no point in trying not to have any expectations, but it is believing that reality should always match these expectations which can cause problems.
  • Acknowledge that the cause of your disappointment is your reaction. While it is understandable to be disappointed with external reality, how you react is up to you. In a way this is good, because it means it is within your power to choose to acknowledge and then deal with the disappointment, in order to enjoy Christmas for what it is. This is not suggesting that you accept something clearly below standard, but rather if the disappointment has come from unrealistic expectations, it may be more helpful to drop these.
  • The easiest way of interrupting the disappointment pattern is to become aware of doing it - while you're doing it. And you'll find that in this way, gradually, the times when you become disappointed become fewer, the duration of the disappointed much shorter, and the intensity of the disappointment much less.

If you find it difficult to unwind

If your life is normally quite pressured, it may feel difficult to change pace and get work or other concerns out of your mind. It can get to the stage, that work has become such a huge part of your life that you don’t know what to do without it. It may be that work is somewhere where you feel valued. Stopping work can cause anxiety. Keeping busy can be a way of preventing getting worried or sad about things, and when you take a break these concerns can catch up with you. If you recognise this kind of restlessness, it may be an opportunity to ask yourself what is bothering you, and give yourself a chance to take stock and reassess your work-life balance.

Top tips to keep Christmas stress to a minimum

Aim for “enjoyable” not “perfect”. Keep expectations for the holiday season manageable. Don't try to make it perfect.

  • Recognise that being together 24/7 may cause tensions, and allow for this.
  • Minimise “are we nearly there yet?” issues when travelling. It is so disappointing to make travel plans in order to promote family togetherness only to get to the destination feeling stressed. Include pre-planned rest stops, drinks and snacks, music and books on tape, and lots of activities for the kids in the back. Travel off-peak if possible.
  • Find time for yourself. Don't spend all your time providing activities for your family and friends. If you’re a parent, remember your own need to have fun, and aim for a balance of activities that meet everyone’s needs.
  • Planning and teamwork: Involve the family in plans and in the workload. Children can have some say, and parents’ needs count as well.
  • Don’t try to do it all.

Getting together with family

“We go back to where I grew up to see my parents. There is an endless round of visits to distant relatives and friends that I no longer feel connected to. I sometimes wonder why I do it. It ends up feeling like an obligation and I’m exhausted. What happened to my restful Christmas?

Tips to cope

  • Identify and endeavour to strengthen healthy relationships that sustain you. Who are the family members, friends, and colleagues you enjoy being with? Get together with friends if a family setting is not feasible.
  • The hope of an idealised family reunion can set you up for frustration and depression. Hopes can be reignited that this time things will be different, or someone might have changed, or that you might be able to relate to each other in a different way. Accepting family members’ limitations, instead of reacting angrily to them, can be easier said than done.
  • Know what your limitations for contact are. Don’t feel guilty if you need some time out for yourself. Determine how involved and accommodating your plans should be well in advance, and make your limits known to others involved.
  • Phone a friend: If the family setting becomes difficult, talk through what is upsetting you. Often it can be a combination of what is happening now, and a history of difficulty with that family member that remains unresolved.
  • Take care with alcohol. It may seem relaxing in the short term, but the physiological effect can compound stress and depression. The psychological effect of reducing your inhibitions may lead you to say something that you later regret.
  • If you are on your own, consider doing some volunteering at Christmas. This can be very rewarding.
  • If you are on your own and you wish it was otherwise, it might be useful to talk with a therapist about what happens and doesn’t happen with you and relationships, and whether there are any patterns that prevent you being able to sustain relationships.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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