Stress, men, and Christmas are words you rarely hear in the one sentence. But spare a thought for the overstretched dad who is often out of his comfort zone during what is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, says Pat Fitzpatrick.
STRESSED about Christmas, guys? Worried that prosecco breakfasts, roasting hot living rooms, drunk uncles, and yet another college class reunion are going to tip you over the edge?
You’re not alone.
Late December can be the opposite of relaxing — a study at the Department of Sociology in the University of California identified an increased risk of cardiac issues over the holiday period, leading to the term ‘The merry Christmas coronary’. It doesn’t help that we have to get by on a mood-busting seven minutes of daylight a day at this time of year.
So what are men supposed to do about this, other than moving to Australia?
The truth is, we get away with a lot of the bad stuff that Christmas has to offer. Those of us with kids know that the whole present and Santa thing wouldn’t happen at all without the women in our lives; if it was left to me, our kids would get two Smyths vouchers and a bottle of wine.
That doesn’t mean we cruise through Christmas either, though. A lot of us are in terror over the whole present thing — we know from bitter experience that our partner dropped seven clear hints about what she wants, but we didn’t pick up on any of them and now we’re dead for not listening.
Before we talk about handling stress, let’s talk about what it is.
According to the NHS website Moodzone, stress affects your body physically to help you cope with threats or difficulties.
Your heart pounds, breathing quickens, muscles tense, and you start to sweat. This is the fight or flight response, it’s the reason your ancestors didn’t get eaten by a bear, so it’s not all bad. These responses should fade when the threat passes, but won’t if you are constantly stressed and that’s when the problems start.
Dr Eddie Murphy is a clinical psychologist, familiar to Operation Transformation fans, who gives regular talks in schools and workplaces, advising people on how to manage stress. He says that men and women tend to react differently.
And what about the causes?
“Men and women can be triggered by different kinds of stress,” he says,
“The top three causes of stress for both sexes are finance, health, family and relationships. Stress can be triggered for a lot of men by financial worries, and this can be a problem if spending spirals out of control around Christmas.”
It’s a familiar dynamic for couples, where one partner is keeping an eye on the joint account and the other is accusing them of being Scrooge while tearing into a second bottle of red, because, come on, it’s Christmas.
It doesn’t help that every time you turn on TV there’s a retailer shouting you’re a bad person if you don’t buy 42 boxes of crisps for visitors who are never going to turn up. This is bound to cause friction in a relationship, and now you’re looking at two of the three top triggers for stress.
Dr Murphy has a solution for this — he thinks we should be more like Santa.
Other than proper budgeting, what other tools can help reduce stress? Virtual bank accounts offered by companies such as Revolut offer a great way to save as you spend, according to Paddy Delaney, financial adviser and the man behind award-winning blog and podcast Informed Decisions.
“The Revolut app includes a feature called Vaults, this enables you to divert money to separate savings pots within your account as you spend and is a highly effective way for people to manage their spending/savings ratio over the festive period.”
Say you buy a coffee for €2.70, Revolut takes €3 from your current account, and diverts 30c to your Vault savings account. If you’re planning to tap your card like mad over Christmas, this could be the way to go.
What about strategies for coping with stress?
According to Dr Murphy, the first step to coping with stress is to boost your resilience, with a good balance of sleep, diet, and exercise. If you’re looking for a quick win, keep your phone out of the bedroom, because as he puts it, “the bedroom is for sleeping and sex”.
He points out that alcohol is the go-to stress solution for a lot of Irish men. This is obviously a problem. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, alcohol is the cause of and solution to all my stress.
Unfortunately, Homer isn’t what you might call a scientist. While the gargle might relieve stress symptoms in the short run, heavy drinking interferes with neurotransmitters in your brain that are necessary for good mental health, thus contributing to bouts of depression and anxiety that make stress harder to deal with over time, according to Drinkaware.
You probably knew that. I’m not going to tell you to avoid binge drinking at Christmas, we’ve all heard that message a million times, and most of us ignore it. But a friend of mine has an interesting take on a booze-free Christmas. He gave up the drink completely a few years back after what you might call a spectacular innings on the high stool.
He says Christmas is so much easier now, because he can plan to meet people, safe in the knowledge he won’t go on a two-day bender beforehand and turn up looking like a vampire.
You don’t need to go out, to drink too much. There is a new threat to our sanity and health this season.
It’s called drinking gin and tonic at home. My wife and I are fans and learned the hard way that a light hand when you’re pouring a measure of gin can lead to a very heavy head the following day. So bear in mind that a single measure of spirits is 35ml and pace yourself accordingly.
Wherever you stand on booze, leave a bit of room in your diary for downtime. One of the most stressful things about Christmas is scheduling too much, and then drinking too much, so you spend festive hours dreading that you have to go out again later and meet a few people you half-knew in college.
There is a lot to be said for under-scheduling your days. Abbie Lane is a consultant psychiatrist, based in Blackrock in Dublin and author of The Stress Handbook: Managing Stress for Healthy Living.
“We are very busy nowadays and getting very bad at doing nothing,” she says. “But doing nothing is important, you’re giving your brain a chance to slow down, to process things, to recover so you have the energy to cope with stress when it comes along.
“There is also guilt if we’re not active, we feel lazy, but resting up is vital. We’re not machines, built to engage in constant activity.”
If you’re looking for an excuse to skip your 50km cycle in favour of an afternoon in front of Where Eagles Dare with a tin of Roses, there you go.
Other cultures and philosophies can teach us a thing or two about dealing with stress. If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ll have heard that mindfulness and meditation can help check out of the rat race for a while. and reduce your stress levels.
Whenever I think of meditation, I picture myself sitting in the lotus position, chanting a mantra. I might be watching too much TV, according to Rajinder Singh, director of the Munay Centre of Shamanic Studies in Cork.
All the people I talked to for this piece pointed out that spending too much time on social media is a cause of stress.
As Rajinder put it, “There’s more attention put on posting photos of your turkey preparation than there is on your turkey. Instead of connecting and looking for gratification from people at home, we’re looking for it from people we don’t even know. And when we don’t get it, that’s an additional stress.”
Again, put away the phone.
Finally, guys, if all else fails, consider changing your deodorant. L’Oreal has a product called Men Expert Stress Resist Deodorant. Designed for men to help “resist stressful situations”, it has a fresh and relaxing woody fragrance according to the website.
The good news is it only costs about a fiver, so you don’t need to get stressed about your spending spiralling out of control.
And whatever about your pounding heart, at least there won’t be a smell off you.
Whatever you do, remember it’s Christmas, it’s only once a year and you’re supposed to cut loose and enjoy yourself a bit. Don’t forget to tune out of the daily grind and put stress on the back burner for a couple of weeks.
As for me, I’m going to cut down on phone time and maybe go easy on the gin.
* Schedule in some you-time, you could do with a break.
* Buy a spirit measure, if you like to drink gin at home.
* Put your phone in ‘do not disturb’ mode.
* Go for a walk without your headphones, be mindful of your surroundings.
* Slow down.If you don’t have at least one pyjama day, it’s not Christmas.
* Sort out a good savings strategy, starting in the new year!
* Put the Flipd app on your smartphone to limit usage and see if it matches its promise to ‘get your life back’.
* Turn off the heating. A roasting hot house isn’t good for stress.