how to handle difficult family situations and reduce christmas stress

Take Christmas stress seriously this season 

Heard of the “Merry Christmas Coronary” or the “Happy New Year Heart Attack” phenomenon? These terms were coined by Dr. Robert A Kloner, a cardiologist who discovered a 30% increase in ‘cardiac deaths during the holiday season‘. A key contributing factor: ‘stress from having to interact with relatives whom they may or may not want to encounter’. 

Stress with its potentially deadly consequences is one thing nobody wants. So let’s get curious about how self care can reduce stress this Christmas and give yourself the most precious gift of all. 

Coping at Christmas: Alex’s festive family habits story 

Whatever your religious or cultural festivities, chances are you can relate to Alex’s story. Every year, Alex dreaded the pressure to comply with the tradition of the Christmas meal at her parents’ house with her four siblings and their families. One of Alex’s sisters bullied her relentlessly when they were younger and this dynamic had continued into adulthood. The family colluded in this bullying and, as Alex was single, there was an expectation that she had time to do ‘all the work’. 

Everything starts with awareness and Alex was realising that her Christmas stress was a dynamic rather than a fixed truth that she had to accept. She was learning to recognise how it happened and how she was participating in what the others wanted her to do. Determined to create the life that she wanted, rather than being at her family’s beck and call, she decided to sherlock how she could do Christmas differently.   

Small changes can yield big benefits

Given how entrenched the family dynamic was and the courage she’d need to change her experience of it, Alex decided to start small.  She knew she needed to build up her confidence, trust, and the skills before taking on bigger changes. She realised that the most stressful aspect of Christmas day was her sister’s relentless commentary on how the meal wasn’t quite good enough. Interestingly, her sister always demanded that they sit together at the table.  So she decided to change the seating arrangements.  

Her brother John was always keen to talk about his work, so she chose to sit next to him.  This small change gave her the boost she needed to get through the day knowing that she’d get this respite during the meal. Everyone’s noise and chatter drowned out her sister’s comments and because Alex wasn’t sitting next to her, her sister had lost her audience. This was a light bulb moment for Alex, she hadn’t realised that she was her sister’s audience.  

How to reduce Christmas stress: everything starts with awareness

Whatever the festive event, be it Hanukkah, Diwali, Eid etc, for many of us there’s stress involved. Have you ever paused to think specifically what’s more stressful about them and what’s less? you can learn how to chart your own experience map from our previous blog Negotiation skills – the helpful way.

Common stress themes you may recognise include dynamics with others, shopping, cooking, loneliness, and choosing who to be with. A theme you may not be aware of is the comparison curse. This is the unfavorable comparison that our inner critic can run relentlessly this season.  Whether it’s the decorations, presents, finances or perceived ‘happy families’ as idealised in seasonal adverts, the curse of unfavorable comparison can be corrosive and crippling.  It can also link to imposter syndrome.

When you sherlock your experience and map what’s going on, you can see specific stress points. This gives you the clues to use for creating experiments to do something different.  Give yourself a moment to think back to the most recent festivities and get curious about what was most stressful for you. Be specific. Notice that it may be a few situations that come to mind. Write down three that feel most stressful. This step is important, there’s something that happens when we see this information outside of our heads. Now you can see them, score them in order of stress, from most stressful to less stressful. Using a scale of one to ten can be helpful, giving the most stressful situation the highest score. 

bumper space to reduce christmas stress

Christmas stress relief: gift yourself self care for Christmas

Now that you’ve got a map of your experience and specific clues about what’s going on, you can look at self care for those experiences. As before, the key is to be specific. In those situations, what specifically would help you (and others) to care for you. Let’s look at Alex’s experience again.

Christmas stress: give yourself some bumper space 

You probably know that cars have bumpers. You may not have given much thought to why they are there but if you’ve ever bumped up against another car you will have been grateful for them. They are designed to take the impact of the bump so that it doesn’t damage the body of the car.  This concept also refers to the space that we leave between the cars to reduce the risk of bumping up against each other in the first place.  

We often don’t realise that humans benefit from bumper space too. The physical environment plays a part.  The proximity to others plays a part. So, Alex’s insight that sitting away from her sister would be helpful was about creating a physical distance between them, or, ‘bumper space’.  Sometimes even just a few inches can make a significant difference. You may have experienced someone stepping too close to you and how threatening that feels. Step back a bit and the sense of threat can ease. 

Festive ghostbusters: who you gonna call?

Alex’s other insight was to choose to sit next to the person whom she felt safest with and closest to. John felt like an ally, and although she didn’t specifically ask him to support her, he was, just by being himself. Alex was interested in his work so his chattiness was also helpful in holding her attention so she wouldn’t be as open to hearing what her sister might be saying.

Having allies that we can call on to support us is an important component in our self care. Who would you call? Who would you reach out to? How can you involve them in supporting you during stressful situations? Alex had asked her friend Rose to be an ally for her on Christmas day and check in with her, so Rose stayed in touch by text. This was helpful and gave Alex the confidence to take her seat next to John. 

Many of us can struggle to find allies or people we feel we can talk to in the moment. Find services where you live that offer phone or text support. Have those numbers already in your phone so you’ve got them to hand. In the UK you can reach out the Samaritans offer a phone-in service, simply call 116 123.  SHOUT offer a text service, simply text 85258 for immediate support. You may think of these as crisis services for people whose lives are in danger. While both services have saved many lives, their services are not just for when you are in crisis. They have trained listeners that are there to support you no matter what. Thor personally recommends them, having used them and found them helpful. 

get support to reduce christmas stress

First Aid for Christmas stress

First Aid for Feelings is about knowing your ABC technique (Awareness – Breath & Body  – Choice) and having a First Aid Kit for Feelings, just like you have a first aid kit as your first port of call for aches and pains, cuts and bruises.  

The idea is to stock your kit with things that help you when you’re struggling with your feelings.  Here are some that our colleague Nicki is adding to her First Aid Kit for Feelings this Christmas.  

Our invitation to you

Here at The Helpful Clinic we firmly believe that good self care is necessary, not just for you but also for others, like someone said: “You can’t pour from an empty cup”. So, give yourself some time to create a map of your experience and care for yourself this Christmas.  Do some experiments with bumper space and allies.  Stock your First Aid Kit for Feelings with things to watch, listen to, smell, eat, and experience that help you feel easier and better.  This is the greatest gift you can give yourself and – in doing so – you are giving to others. 

Fancy more?  Check out our 3 gifts to give yourself this Christmas.

Connect with us on Facebook and InstagramSign up for our fortnightly newsletter to get helpful tips and tools straight to your inbox.

Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor

Thor sitting writing in his chair and Denny the dog sitting next to him and looking outside the window