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How to deal with Christmas stress

With the year many of us have had, it’s little wonder that some of us are not exactly decking the halls with holly. Here’s how to get in to the swing of Christmas without adding more stress.

It’s been a big year. Actually, given what we’ve collectively been through it’s been a big few years, for all of us. So it may well be that you’re trudging towards December 25th, running on fumes with your proverbial ‘check engine’ light flashing and no petrol station in sight.

December often feels like a mad rush to an invisible finish line. Each week opening your diary to find a wedding on Friday, a Christmas party on Saturday, end-of-year drinks on Sunday afternoon and about three weeks’ worth of work to smash through come Monday morning.

Add the usual mayhem to the emotional toll of an ongoing pandemic and global unrest, and for many of us, perhaps for the first time, getting into the party spirit just feels like too much this year.

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So, if you’re tempted to climb under the bed and stay there until January 1, you’re not alone. We spoke with two experts about how best to navigate our end-of-year overwhelm.

Recognising end-of-year burnout

‘It’s the most wonderful time of the year’, sang Andy Williams all those years ago, and for some of us it will be. A chance to let our hair down at celebrations, see our much-loved friends and family, and finally, finally, take a break and get some breathing room. But for many of us, the opposite can be true. 

“We all know what happens at this time of the year,” says Sally McGrath, founder of Health that Heals specialising in burnout awareness treatment. “There are a multitude of party invitations, the people that all need to catch up because all of a sudden, it’s urgent to see every person you know. There’s the pending anxiety of catering for Christmas Day and mixing with family, some you may or may not want to see. And consider split families – it can be a time of dread because it highlights what has not worked out for people,” she says.

“People can also feel quite lonely and alone, vulnerable and depressed during this time. While for many, Christmas is a wonderful time, for others it is a challenging and emotional time, so it’s important to be aware.”

Just talking about it makes me want to nope out of my commitments and curl up in my Oodie with a hot drink, but McGrath says there’s an important difference between true burnout and simply exhaustion.

“Burnout is not something that just happens because the end of the year is in sight,” she explains. “Burnout builds over months and years through a series of unconscious habits and behaviours.” The main difference is that unlike relatively straightforward end-of-year exhaustion, burnout doesn’t resolve when we simply take a break, so it’s important to be able to spot the signs.

So yes, end-of-year exhaustion is a thing, and this year, it’s apparently on steroids. 

Why this year was especially taxing

Dr Rebecca Ray, clinical psychologist and bestselling author says that we’re facing a unique set of challenges as we close out 2023. “This year is especially trying because it occurs on the back of a once-in-a-generation pandemic, in the middle of another symptomatic wave of Covid, while we’re facing a cost-of-living crisis and observing global warfare – all simultaneously.”

Dr Beck explains that this potent mix of emotional and psychological stressors can be what takes us from the early stages of burnout and seasonal exhaustion to what she terms ‘clinically severe burnout’. “This manifests as anxiety, the energy of which has nowhere to go, and whole-person depletion where you struggle to find an area of your life in which you’re not exhausted,” she says. 

Your guide to a happy, healthy silly season

With all of this fatigue, wouldn’t it be brilliant to find a roadmap to guide us through the next month? Well, you’re in luck, because both of our experts have developed sets of easy-to-follow guidelines. 

Firstly, McGrath encourages us to implement the following:

  1. Get comfortable saying ‘No, thank you, just not right now’.
  2. Choose quality over quantity – Do a review of what is coming up and cherry-pick where you choose to show up.
  3. Ditch the FOMO – It will exhaust you and the only person that will lose will be yourself.
  4. Hold firm on boundaries – Boundaries are important for your own well-being, including your mental and physical health. 

Next, she suggests we ask some big questions:

  1. How do I want and choose to spend my time socialising with work, with neighbours, with family?
  2. What work priorities are really essential to be completed before Christmas? Can anything wait?
  3. How do I want to spend the time off, if I have any? 

And finally, her favourite – How will I feel when all this is over? *Hint: If the answer is ‘more exhausted’, it’s a no. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling calmer already. Now, what if you’re overwhelmed with a pile of event invitations? Stop. Breathe. And read on… 

Dr Beck has developed a quick and easy checklist we can refer to when we just can’t decide whether to tick ‘attending’ or send our apologies. 

Say yes if:

  • There are people attending who are good for your mental health.
  • There’s a part of you that really wants to go.
  • The consequences of saying ‘no’ are bigger than the effort of saying ‘yes’ (e.g. attending your workplace Christmas party puts you in good stead for promotion rather than being judged as ’not a team player‘ if you don’t go). 

Say no if:

  • Your ‘giving’ tanks are empty and rusting.
  • You would only be going because you think you ’should‘.
  • There is no identifiable benefit to you attending other than avoiding your own self-imposed guilt.

When it might be something deeper

While exhaustion, depression and even burnout are common experiences, especially this year, Dr Beck explains how to tell when it’s time to seek help from a mental health professional.

“Burnout tends to be something that is externalised, while depression has internalised features,” she explains. “With burnout, it’s common to identify things outside yourself that make you feel ‘over it’ (work, invitations, kids‘ events, school events, the world burning, etc). Depression tends to have a set of internalised features that don’t usually occur in burnout including high levels of self-criticism and a sense of self-loathing.” 

A great shortcut is to consider whether removing yourself from the circumstances that are causing you stress alleviates your symptoms. If they remain or become deeper even with rest and self-care, it’s time to enlist the help of a psychologist or counsellor. 

Honour your needs first

Both of our experts advocate for maximum self-love when it comes to navigating this time of year.

“Remove the word ‘should’ from your vocabulary, says McGrath. “As I like to tell clients, there is no need to ‘should’ on yourself, now or anytime. Should raises the expectations of self and others and before you know it you are in the cycle of being a people pleaser – making everyone else happy while you end up sick and or resentful, exhausted or burnt-out.”

And if you’re struggling to suppress that inner critic, Dr Beck says, “Leading with self-kindness is the best way forward here. Speak to yourself as you would a friend. Remember that you are only one person, and your resources (time, energy, care, attention, money, love) are not infinite. Check-in on the levels of your giving tanks before saying yes or no.” 

Dr Beck encourages us to remember that only we know how much is left in our own tanks, “if they are low, saying ’no‘ right now is a gift for your future self.”

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