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How to cope with stress at Christmas

We spoke to Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Jaya Gowrisunkur, about coping with stress at Christmas. Within this blog, we explore the causes of stress, the most appropriate treatment, and the best ways to avoid the pressures of the holidays, particularly in a year when the coronavirus pandemic has changed the festive season as we know it.

Understanding stress

Stress is a normal, necessary and adaptive response that helps us to deal with the challenges of life and the environment around us.

We all experience stress at certain points in our lives but different people have different capacities for coping with it. Some individuals thrive on high levels of stress, such as in stressful working environments, whereas others struggle a lot more with the pressure.

For most people, when we feel stressed for a long period of time, this can have a negative long-term effect on our health and wellbeing. This will be keenly felt by many people this year, after months of living under COVID-19 restrictions.

How to spot the signs and symptoms of stress

Physical symptoms of stress can include:

  • Regular headaches
  • Unexplained nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation
  • Muscular aches and pains
  • Dizziness, palpitations, and sudden visual changes
  • Hyper sensitivity to noise
  • Insomnia and fatigue
  • Loss of libido

Psychological symptoms of stress include:

  • Anger
  • Impatience
  • Excessive worrying
  • Loss of confidence
  • Poor concentration
  • Forgetfulness

Behavioural changes linked to stress include:

  • Procrastination
  • Indecisiveness
  • Heightened aggression
  • Tearfulness
  • Loss of capacity to cope
  • Loss of resilience
  • Increased sensitivity
  • Inability to perform at work
  • Social withdrawal including withdrawal from family and friends
  • Relationship problems

Coping with stress at Christmas

The pressures of 2020 will have heightened feelings of stress for many. And, for these people, Christmas may be an extremely difficult time.

Christmas is usually characterised as a time for celebration – music, bright lights, giving presents, seeing loved ones and enjoying food and drink. Sadly, all of this extravagance is far from the reality this year. There are now additional strains at a time already fraught with demands, as we all continue to adhere to social distancing and the merriment is much more muted. Plus, there are the usual pressures of Christmas to contend with, which include:

  • Expectations to socialise (even within our allowed households) and spend more money
  • The emphasis on loneliness at this perceived time of togetherness
  • Heightened feelings of loss or grief
  • Additional cleaning and cooking, on top of already busy lives
  • Arguments amongst family during a time of closer proximity
  • Financial worries, heightened by the pressure of choosing perfect gifts
  • Pressure on hosts to provide the perfect Christmas for children, parents or guests

A study conducted by eBay compared Christmas shopping to running a marathon in terms of the stress that it produces on the body. Women and the over-45s found the experience the most pressurising and intense. 60% of those surveyed experienced shopping fatigue after 32 minutes, with heart rates increasing by an average of 33% during this time.

Christmas is also a time when most people, whether they struggle with stress or not, consume more alcohol than usual. This can cause people to behave in uncharacteristic, risky or embarrassing ways which can have significant, potentially long-term effects at work, at home and on self-esteem.

Another aggravating factor that may contribute towards stress levels at this time of year is the role of social media, which triggers one-upmanship during the holiday season. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram fuel ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out), even in this COVID Christmas as people stage glamorous get-togethers within the home, or are in areas with more relaxed tier systems. Social media can also leave people feeling like failures for not having the best tree, decorations, presents or food.

All in all, the holiday season creates the ‘perfect storm’ of heightened physical, emotional, psychological and social stressors.

How to deal with stress

During stressful periods such as Christmas, it is important to find safe outlets for emotions, such as enjoying outdoor exercise or chatting to a friend over video or phone. Below is some more advice:

  • Focus on positives and celebrate the small achievements
  • Don’t catastrophise – ask yourself “what if everything goes well, not wrong?”
  • Forget “shoulds” and “musts”
  • Stop people-pleasing – it’s okay if you turn down some invites, even if it’s just to a Zoom call you don’t feel comfortable attending
  • Let go of your inner perfectionist – look at what really matters to you
  • Have a break from social media and don’t compare yourself to others

Practical tips:

  • Spread out your diary – it’s okay to plan nice things for January too, rather than putting too much pressure on the small window in December
  • Prepare and plan in advance for how your time is going to be spent
  • Organise, prioritise and set achievable goals
  • Set yourself a budget for Christmas shopping
  • Share the load – allocate tasks and give other people responsibilities

Good habits for self-care:

  • Clean up unnecessary clutter
  • Open a window or go for a walk for fresh air
  • Take up an exercise class that is good for wellbeing, such as yoga
  • Drink responsibly, limit alcohol or avoid it completely
  • Avoid self-medicating with alcohol and food

Some people who are stressed, anxious or depressed can turn to negative ways of coping, such as eating too much food or drinking alcohol, to make themselves feel better. This is highly risky because emotional distress cannot be reduced with this behaviour, it will only keep increasing.

Treatment for stress

Treatment for stress can include:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • Mindfulness-based therapy (MBT)
  • Medication including anti-depressants may be helpful in certain cases

Here at Priory Healthcare, we help people who are struggling to manage their stress levels and who are worried about the impact it is having on their life. When you first come to us, an initial appointment will be provided with a consultant psychiatrist, who will help to clarify your condition and form a diagnosis, leading to a care plan focused around your specific needs and goals.

Get in Touch Today

For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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