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8 tactics to cope with stress and anxiety at Christmas

A clinical psychologist with extensive experience in treating stress, anxiety and depression has warned that the financial pressures of gift-giving, family conflicts, family expectations, or feelings of isolation can cause stress and anxiety for some people during Christmas. It is also a time when many support services are on break. While we cannot change these circumstances, we can improve how we cope with them.

Judy Chan at Wesley Hospital in Sydney’s Ashfield, which has provided world-class mental health treatment for more than 60 years, said: “The cost pressures of gift-giving or unresolved family issues are real sources of anxiety for many – not least the 14 per cent of Australians suffering from an anxiety disorder. Also for many, there is the added stress of dividing time between in-laws – even when they live near – coping with isolation when family is far, or coping with grief or sadness when a family member has been lost to divorce or death.”

Judy said that while we may not be able to change the circumstances creating such pressures, we can change the way we cope with them internally and manage them externally. “Learning to identify anxiety and stress, or the triggers that cause them, and then developing the strategies to overcome them, can help us to manage these conditions over the holidays,” she said. “Our behaviours can also impact our psyche, so it’s important to set restrictions on the amount of alcohol we consume over the Christmas period, and take the time to exercise, eat healthily and do the things that we enjoy. Implementing strategies to cope with the additional pressures of Christmas will ultimately improve the quality of our holidays.”

Judy Chan’s eight tips for managing stress and anxiety over the Christmas period

  1. Do not overthink and catastrophise situations. Catastrophising current or future scenarios can be the result, or cause, of anxiety. Try to start noticing when your mind is going down this path. When it does, visualise a STOP sign, tell yourself you do not know the outcome, try and look at the situation from different perspectives, and come to a more reasonable and likely conclusion. Another strategy for coping with these thoughts is to discuss them with a close friend you trust who can be a good sounding board and reality check.
  1. Limit your alcohol intake. While alcohol is often used to alleviate stress, it is a very short-term solution and can aggravate anxiety in the long term. This is because, as a central nervous system depressant, alcohol lowers our ability to exercise sound judgement and control behaviour. A good way to limit alcohol is to have at least two alcohol-free days a week, especially during the holiday period, limit your intake to two drinks a day, or alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks when socialising.
  1. Do not take on responsibilities you cannot realistically commit to. Never saying no can be caused by a fear of rejection or disapproval. It can cause you to stretch yourself too thin and end up stressed and anxious. Before accepting a Christmas invitation you are too busy to attend, agreeing to host a dinner at your house, or offering to make that extra dish for a party, take the time to consider whether you can realistically commit. Realise that some people might be put off, but that you do not need to please everyone, and each person is responsible for their own feelings. Practise saying no.
  1. Do not aim for perfection. Not only is perfection impossible, but no event, gathering or gift needs to be perfect to create an enjoyable time. When choosing gifts, planning Christmas lunch, or organising family holidays, train yourself to look at the big picture, to avoid getting bogged down worrying about the small stuff. Set achievable Christmas party or holiday goals, and focus on all of the positive things you are doing.
  1. Take time out. Do you get addicted to the rush of a busy work schedule? Keeping busy can give us a sense of purposefulness, or help us to avoid dealing with other issues, but we can become addicted to the ongoing adrenalin and the dopamine rush we get from completing tasks. This can often lead to stress, social isolation or even feelings of anxiousness when we find ourselves with free time. Once a week aim to do relaxing things you enjoy.
  1. Relax your body. You might already feel anxious. Know that your body reflects how you feel inside. When you are stressed, you often unconsciously cross your legs tightly, tap our feet when seated, clench our hands, or frown. Checking these actions, undoing them, and intentionally releasing muscle tension in your body can lead to your internal state following suit. Yoga, tai chi and exercises such as progressive muscle relaxation, walking and slow breathing (in for three seconds, out for five) are all helpful ways to relieve mental and muscle tension.
  1. Find a confidant you trust. Sharing your problems and concerns with a trusted friend can lead to clarity and a different perspective on a particular cause of stress or anxiety. Find someone who is happy to talk to you once or twice a week, and is non-judgemental. But choose the right time to talk to them so that you have their undivided attention, and let them know whether you are seeking advice or just a listening ear.
  1. Seek support, guidance and strategies for coping. If you are withdrawn from social activities or are avoiding them completely, finding it difficult to concentrate, or drinking more to cope with feelings of stress, it is important to seek help now to find the strategies to manage stress and anxiety over Christmas. Physical symptoms such as insomnia, heart palpitations, trembling, nausea, panic attacks, and changes in appetite can also manifest. Christmas is also the time to keep an eye out for loved ones who may be exhibiting these symptoms. Encourage them to seek help at specialised clinics such as Wesley Hospital, which uses evidence-based therapies to help Australians in the recovery, management and prevention of these conditions.

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