How to have a very Happy Happy Christmas (CBT, expert advice)

For many, the festive season can be the most stressful time of the year. Our director (& CBT therapist) Lisa Johnston has some coping strategies and advice.

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Managing your mental wellbeing at Christmas

For many, the Christmas period can be a mega mix of pleasures and pressures. The movies, songs, adverts and tv we are exposed to at Christmas (and often many months leading up to Christmas) portray the perfect christmas with tastefully decorated homes, beautifully cooked dinners with happy families sat around engaging cheerfully. The expectations created by these images can cause a lot of stress and anticipation anxiety as we strive to achieve something even close to these picture postcard scenes. This year, more than ever, we are also likely to be bombarded with Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram images of perfect homes, and beautifully edited pictures of perfect family scenes. This, for some, can create a further layer of stress. 

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Our emotions start with an interpretation of an event. It is often not the here and now facts that drive how we feel, but our interpretation of events. So, if you are approaching Christmas with lots of negative predictive thoughts such as “I just won’t have time to do it all”, “I won’t cope”, “what if I let my family down and can’t make it the best Christmas ever”, it is going to have a negative impact not just on how you feel on the day, but on the run up to it. 

Here are some tips and tricks for managing your wellbeing over the Christmas period, to help you get on top of both the practical and emotional problems that might arise. 

Filtering through the idealistic and focusing on the priorities

If the list of things you want or feel you need to get done by christmas is mounting and you can feel the stress building, it is time to press the pause button for a moment. 

The first tip is, get it all out of your head and onto a piece of paper. It doesn’t matter the order it gores down or how well formed the ideas are, the process of downloading it from your head to the paper is the first step in making a realistic and achievable plan. On another piece of paper write it down in an order of priority with the most important things at the top, the least important things may not even make it onto the page. 

As you place items in order of priority ask yourself; will it significantly improve mine or my families experience of Christmas by doing this? Do ideas you have taken from a magazine or perfect Pinterest picture need to happen? Could you let some of them go? 

Great expectations

You could probably do everything on your ‘to do’ wish list, but at what cost to your enjoyment of the christmas period, your stress levels, sleep or energy levels? 

  • Drop the pursuit of perfection, it can hold you back from moving forwards. Be realistic, not perfect.

  • Throw away the ‘I should’ statements that you have set for yourself and give yourself permission to cut back a little and share some of the prep.

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The children won’t notice if the decorations don’t match or if you overcooked the carrots, they won’t notice there isn’t a home made ginger bread house or an elaborately decorated christmas cake. They will however notice if you are stressed, distracted and agitated on both the run up to and on Christmas day. 

Well considered delegation

Once you have a list of priorities the next step it to consider when each one can realistically be achieved and if any of these could be delegated to others. If you having people joining you at christmas, consider their skills or interests and ask them to take charge of one or two items such as bringing a cooked ham, or coming round early to help peel the vegetables. Could they be in charge of other tasks such as planning a game to entertain the children or serving drinks, so you have more capacity to crack on with what you want to do?

The worst, best, realistic technique.

If you notice you are becoming increasingly short, snappy, irritable, anxious or angry on the run up to events over the Christmas period, the likelihood is there are a some unhelpful negative thoughts that are driving these emotions and change in behaviours.  

The Worst case, best case and realistic outcome is a simple process of questions that can help you to manage all kinds of anxious and stress related thoughts and helps you to access a more balanced perspective. 

When we are worried, we commonly focus on the likelihood of outcomes which can give you a distorted impression of the actual likelihood. If you can identify the particularly worrying or stressful thoughts, write them down and consider them from a variety of different possible outcomes, from good to bad, it can help to quieten anxious or spiralling thoughts. 

Here are 3 questions you can ask yourself to help you to access a more helpful perspective on things;

If you find yourself getting anxious ask yourself;

  1. what is the worst thing that could happen?

  2. what is the best possible thing that could happen?

  3. what is the most realistic outcome?

Once you have come up with a more realistic perspective on a problem, it then helps to think through more practical things you can do to help those more positive outcomes to be more likely to happen.

Grounding technique to gain perspective on negative metal chatter 

If you notice your mind getting caught up in negative loops about something someone said, or stressful thoughts, you may benefit from talking to a professional to help you make sense of these cycles. 

You could try a grounding technique as a way of helping you to shift your attention back to the here and now and away from negative internal mental chatter. It is the ability to shift your attention to what is real and true outside of your head.  

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You can start by slowing your breathing down and gently moving your attention to your five senses 5 different sights, 4 different sounds, 3 different things you can feel, 2 smells and one taste. You could have with you some grounding objects to touch, or things that you enjoy smelling.  Observe them in a non-judgmental way moving steadily onto the nest without engaging with any mental chatter that might come up. Try to become aware of them all at once for a few minutes and fill your attention with them. Let yourself get lost in the outside world.

Unstructured family time

Some people struggle with the prolonged time spent with family over Christmas. We also tend to thrive off routine, and prolonged ‘free time’ can present a challenge for some too.

Most people have couples relationships with family which can present us with a range of emotionally demanding situations which need to be navigated.

Decide to set aside differences with friends or family and accept that we can’t change or control what they say or do. We can however decide to address these grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. A time when there is less pressure and mix of emotions. 

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Slow down, zoom out and shift your attention from your internal mental chatter to the external world around you.

Take some time to go slow for a bit.  To unplug and enjoy the simply beauty of the outdoors. If you enjoy walking, cycling or running, don’t stop doing that over Christmas. Soak up the christmas lights in your local area, take a candlelit bath or our off the tv and play a some favourite tunes while being playful with the kids.

The decorations don’t need to be all put up in the same day and the minced pies don’t have to be home made, do Christmas the way you want to and in a way that enables to actually enjoy it too.

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Taking a moment to zoom out and gain perspective on what really matters to you can hugely help to break cycles of negative thinking. Evidence shows that quality of life is directly connected to our ability to pay attention to meaningful things. 

Learning the skill of mindfulness can be a hugely helpful in connecting with your everyday in a different way. The ability to be more mindful in our approach to our daily life has been found to be a key element in happiness.

Mindfulness is the practice of purposely focusing your attention on the present moment. It teaches us to learn to accept what is happening in our present moment without judgment.

The best gift this Christmas. 

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Consider what Christmas really means to you. Then ask yourself to consider that the very best gift you could give others and yourself this Christmas is to be your happiest and best self. Visualise the impact that being full of peace and happiness could have on the whole experience of Christmas and New Year. The best things in life and not ‘things’ so make sure you take some time to consider how you will look after your wellbeing and overall ability to enjoy and be full present this Christmas.

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