The Christmas season can be very stressful. For some it is dealing with loneliness. For others it is the complexity of the family – such as which parent to go visit. It might be dealing with past hurts, or memories of tragic occasions. For some people it might be coping with being shunned due to race, colour, politics or life choices. For others, it’s about getting the ‘show’ right, and not making mistakes.
Whatever your situation, one thing you can do is understand your own patterns to stress and make a conscious choice on how to deal with it.
The first thing is to be self aware when you are stressed. When I was small and my mother was stressed with Christmas, if she heard noises from the children she would say “whatever, you are doing – don’t!” without looking up from the kitchen sink. Then if she got stressed with the Christmas dinner and something went wrong she’d say “look what you made me do”.
None of us are perfect. For me, when I am stressed, I hold back emotion and hold onto rational decisions. It’s a bit like being at an accident and acting as a first responder – I become task oriented trying to fix the situation and then later, alone, crash with all the feelings. This is good in a work situation, but not so good with family over dinner.
Another thing I learned is the fight, flight , freeze (reactive) response. So at Christmas, one person might get angry when under stress. But for me, I freeze, and look blank, uncertain of the right response so give no response. This isn’t good if someone is looking for an emotional response.
I’ve also learnt that when I’m stressed, my level of grace drops, and I am impatient with others, unforgiving of little mistakes, and forgetting the fact that no one is perfect.
Ross Hardy, who used to be a crisis counsellor for people on Beachy Head cliffs in Sussex talks of how anxiety disengages the part of the brain that controls decision making, self-control, and long term planning. This is one reason why people act in uncharacteristic ways when stressed or overwhelmed with emotion. The key here is to notice your emotion by labelling it and then reassess what’s really happening in a more neutral or positive way. These steps kick start the brain into thinking of new alternatives and prevent a rash response. It works for taking people from the edge of the cliffs, as it allows them to seek new ways to take their emotional pain away.
For example, one year I had been waiting for a particular Christmas present for months and months. After all the waiting when I was given it, I was so excited to open the present and use it. Unfortunately the family I was with had a cultural norm of unwrapping presents and then ignoring them for the rest of the day – as the day was about being with the people, and presents weren’t important on the day in their world. I was seething, as I had waited months and felt thwarted at the final step. In retrospect I would have reduced that emotion by naming it, and then reconsidering the situation such as “it’s only 24 hours, it’s only a bauble in life, and I don’t see the others the rest of the year”.
The challenge, is that Christmas has many cultural rules. Do you celebrate on Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day? What do you eat? Who do you invite? It is a minefield, and much of that comes from the artificial rules we impose on ourselves and on others. If you look across Europe there are scores of ways of having the ‘right’ Christmas, from eating turkey, or carp, or being vegetarian.
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves” – Carl Jung
So the last part of stress is to know what rules you are getting upset with. Even Debrett’s gives advice on how to avoid faux pas. But are those rules really important in the grand scheme of life. Moreover, does the other person know the rule, and why should they?
When we look at anger, it comes from people breaking the rules we believe in life and also can be used to mask other emotions. Anger itself is okay particularly where trust is broken but it’s how we deal with it that can be destructive. (the HG Wells story, “The Wonderful Visit” tells of an angel who comes to Victorian polite society, and due to helping a servant girl, he ‘must’ be shunned and kicked out of the village by not following the cultural code of the time)
Getting to know your stress response
Take a moment to look back on the times you have been stressed and consider:
- How do you react to stress?
- Do you get argumentative? (fight)
- Do you storm out? (leave / flee)
- Do you avoid? (fill the day with busy stuff but not connect to people)
- Do you freeze? (stop being decisive)
- Do you get overwhelmed with emotion, and stop thinking straight?
- Recognise where you might react with an emotion – anger, resentment, spite, feeling offended, lack of control
- Name the emotion you are feeling
- Explore where the emotion is coming from – is it from this moment, or a pattern from the past?
- Reassess the situation in the wider context beyond the moment, and consider a neutral or positive intent.
- Then think of other possibilities for dealing with the emotion.
- What rules do you have for Christmas, and do you really still need them?
- What rules come from your culture and parents – are they imperative if you jointly did Christmas with a person from another culture with other rules?
- What rules are you expecting on other people? Have you made it politely clear of these rules in your life, and how important they are to you? Do you accept the other people will also hold contradictory rules that are just as important? Are they cultural or universal?
- Consider other ways to let them know of your feeling, and the rule so you’re not giving your default fight, flight and freeze response.
- Lastly consider the universal paradox of intent: It is a human behaviour that we assume all our behaviour comes from the situation, and other people’s behaviour comes from character.
- Are you mislabelling the other person’s character when it’s their stress response too.
If you are now more aware of how you are with stress, you have the choice to let people know, try to act differently, and accept that others will also have different reactions to stress. Sometimes when I am stressed at work, now I tell others in the team that I am stressed and apologise for not being gracious before it happens -that helps prevent a feeling of frustration later.
In this way we can be less stressful to others, and more forgiving for the stress others cause us.
As we come to the final preparations for Christmas, I wish you all good tidings of peace and joy. In keeping with this reflective time of year, I acknowledge I have wronged others and I am sorry for the act and impact. And for those who have wronged me, I forgive.