Going crackers at Christmas: How to ditch the festive season stress

Ciara McDonnell usually gets caught up in the stresses of the festive season. Can advice from a wellness coach turn it into a more enjoyable experience?

Around two weeks ago I started to wake at 3am with recipes for cranberry sauce whirling around my head.

Blearily reaching for my iPhone, every night I spend hours scrolling through recipes for
homemade Christmas cookie tree decorations and worrying whether all my family will fit around the table on the big day.

As the night slowly becomes morning I find myself knee deep in lists: Santa lists, family gifts, who-drinks-what-booze, random recipes for Rough Puff pastry and an essential oil blend that make everything smell like mulled wine.

In short, it is five weeks to Christmas and I have gone stone mad. Just like I do every year.

Of course, my husband is blissfully unaware of the goings on in my head. A true Christmas fairy, he has been counting down the days to the big day since September, and all that is on his mind is Santa and selection boxes.

I, on the other hand, have been frantically taking inventory of my hot press, to make sure that I have enough good sheets for our Christmas guests, and worrying if the kitchen renovation we have taken on will actually be finished, or whether I will be cooking Christmas dinner on the barbeque and pretending that we are going for an Australian theme this year.

I have post-its on the wall of my office informing me of impending work deadlines and dates from which I can order my giant turkey.

I can feel my runaway train of stress leaving the station, and with it, all possibility of a reasonable conversation with my spouse until January. From early December, all casual enquiries such as “What’s for dinner” will be met with an indignant roar of “Oh, WHAT’S FOR DINNER, EH? Don’t I have enough to be doing, creating the ultimate Christmas experience for the whole family? What’s for dinner? HA! And here I am, making 750 fennel and apple sausage rolls!”

In an effort to prevent the need for calming drugs and to put off the impending stress-induced sinus attack that plagues me in the run up to the Nollaig festivities each year, I call Dr Jacinta (Jess) Lynch, GP turned life and wellness coach, and owner of Wellness + Success (www.wellnessandsuccess.ie), a company based in Kinsale which offers co-active coaching to help people deal with the challenges of real life. Relax, she says.

“Every year, we read all sorts of advice on surviving Christmas. We can find recommendations on everything from turkey stuffing to tree-toppers. It’s easy to get carried away with the excitement but it’s also easy to feel overwhelmed by the need to get so many details right.” Check, check and double check.

Dr Lynch says that in order to prevent madness overcoming me and ruining my Christmas, it’s essential to identify the bits of Christmas I love the most.

When I think about it, it’s the ambient parts of the festivites I adore. I associate Christmas with the smell of cinnamon and clove, a warm crackly fire, the clinking of glasses and the sound of my kids laughing. This is great, says Jess. The next step is to stop beating myself up in anticipation of failure.

“There is no such thing as perfect, especially when it comes to Christmas, no matter what the marketing campaigns tell us. Recognise and
celebrate your achievements.”

Happiness and a stress-free life go hand in hand with good physical health, says Dr Lynch. “Try to remember to avoid excess. It is obvious, but worth emphasising that moderation is key at Christmas. Your health and well-being will not be served by overindulgence in food, shopping, late-nights and particularly, alcohol.”

Get outdoors for some fresh air, light, peace and exercise as much as possible says the doctor. “We often neglect this over winter and especially when busy, but taking ourselves outside promotes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.”

Even though Christmas is a time for giving, it’s important to give to yourself as much as others, says Jess. It is critical to consider our own emotional wellbeing throughout th festive period.

“Would it be better to increase your tolerance of another person’s irritating habits for the sake of peace, or should you just avoid spending too long in their company? Consider this for your guests as well. Maybe it’s best not to invite sworn enemies to the same table!”

Dr Lynch says that there is no point spending the Christmas period running around after everyone else. In fact, she reckons that there is no better time of the year than to schedule in some Me Time.

“If you feel overwhelmed by the to-do list in December, add ‘Time for myself’ to it. Taking a break to do something you enjoy — or to do nothing — will make you more efficient. This applies in the run-up to the big day and also during the celebrations.”

All of this sounds great, I tell Jess, but what if I put all of this in place and still find myself stressing out over the right colour napkin for my Christmas table? Take a deep breath, she says, put away your table plans and indulge in some Christmas giving.

“Supporting and helping others promotes our well-being through a sense of connection,” she explains.

“Becoming aware of the needs of others also makes us grateful for what we have. Try to make some time for giving. This may be through charitable donations or by visiting a lonely neighbour. These presents are more satisfying than the gift-wrapped variety.”

If all else fails, treat yourself like you would your child, and prepare a rewards scheme. Even as adults, rewards motivate us, says Lynch.

“Set a reward that will keep you moving forward. Rather than seeing the negative aspect of this pressure, you will focus on the ‘prize’. The reward will also prevent a sense of anti climax after Christmas. This can also be achieved by setting a new goal for the New Year.”

After chatting with Dr Lynch I feel a wave of calm — albeit temporary — when I think of the next few weeks.

This year, I am setting myself a new goal. Rather than be mired with martyrdom on Stephen’s Day, and flinging myself on the couch with a box of Roses, I am going to attempt to relax and actually enjoy the day.

This is great progress, Jess tells me. The next step is to achieve the ultimate: to aim to be present with my family and enjoy the day that’s in it. After all, she says, the greatest gift you can give someone at Christmas, is the presence of yourself.


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