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Happy holidays: stress less with mindfulness this Christmas

Christmas and the holidays are mostly feelgood times. At least the ideas behind them are positive, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t stressful. Clinical Neuropsychologist Dr Michael Takagi, says there’s plenty of evidence to show stress comes from happy occasions too: “Planning a wedding is a joyful, positive occasion, but very stressful. For many people it is overwhelming.

“Christmas is on a smaller scale, but it can be a bit like that. So, can holidays.”

A big issue with positive life events is they usually come with expectations, that’s just human nature, right? It’s normal to expect Christmas to feel familiar, even similar to previous years. It’s also pretty normal to expect gifts from people we are close to. So, what if they forget, or buy something we don’t want? It’s usual too, to expect our holiday will feel relaxing in a way that we want. But what if the holiday cabins you usually book aren’t available, and the alternate choice doesn’t measure up? The family probably complains, that’s what.

It’s important to note that Christmas isn’t positive for everyone. Research done by the Salvation Army in 2018 found that 7.6 million think Christmas is the most stressful time of the year. One in four Aussies experience anxiety at this time, while the same proportion spend more than they can afford.

Could mindfulness help? It’s never been a magic cure for the kinds of issues noted above, but there’s plenty of evidence that shows mindfulness has a positive impact on our mindset and behaviour.

So as long as our expectations are modest, a few basic mindfulness techniques can take the edge off Christmas and holiday stress.

It’s a good idea to do a little unpacking to make your mindfulness techniques effective this Christmas and holiday season, Dr Takagi says anticipating potentially stressful events can improve our chances of reducing stress. So, let’s dig a little deeper. Christmas and the holidays have the capacity to stress us out in several ways:

  1. Financially
  2. At work
  3. The celebration/s
  4. Relationships
  5. Post-holiday blues

Below we’ll look briefly at how mindfulness works and then unpack each of those trigger points.to see how mindfulness can help.

HOW MINDFULNESS WORKS

In a nutshell, by reducing the stress hormones that course through our minds and deactivating the parasympathetic nervous system that sparks the flight, fight or freeze responses. Our muscles relax and loosen, our breathing slows down and becomes deeper. We feel less agitation and can think clearer and make better decisions.

But those effects are the end result not the instructions for getting there.

It’s a misconception that mindfulness is clearing the mind and calming down, though we might get those benefits when we approach mindfulness with a good understanding of what it is.

“A big part of mindfulness is learning to be present in the moment, Dr Takagi says. That is easier said than done, it is normal for your thoughts to wander and go off on a tangent or focus on stressful things in your life. With practice, you learn to bring your thoughts back and stay in the moment.

“What we are trying to do is be aware of how we are feeling, the emotions, the sensations, how the moment is impacting you and acknowledging your reactions are normal.

“Accept your thoughts and feelings without judgement, so for example, if you’re anxious, acknowledge it and reassure yourself that feeling anxious is neither good nor bad. We try not to expect that we should be feeling this way or another way.”

Just accepting your feelings and thoughts and concentrating on your breathing, or relaxing the muscles in your body one at a time, or a very simple visualisation, and letting thoughts go, this can reduce stress. “Feelings and thoughts tend to pass and move on if you let them,” Takagi says.

Why do we need to reduce stress at all? Because continually operating with feelings of stress can interfere with good decision-making. It’s a theme we’ll come back to several times.

FINANCIAL STRESS AND SHOPPING

Situations like rushing to buy presents at the last minute on Christmas Eve, or in a 30-minute lunch break, or having to weave through big crowds to find items in short supply, or trying to tick off a long list of gifts on a budget. These trigger a stress response, even though in evolutionary terms this was obviously not what our stress response was designed to handle.

We are similarly ill-equipped to cope with financial stress, which happens when we experience chronic worry about money.

There’s no doubt stress is a useful immediate reaction for humans in some situations, like, being faced with a life-threatening situation: we can decide under pressure to run, jump, hide, or even fight.  But operating for prolonged periods in a stressed state can lead humans to make bad decisions.

Perhaps nowhere is this more evident with spending money as an attempt to quell stress. Research done by Financial Mindfulness in 2017 found financial stress had damaging effects on relationships and our mental health. Things only got worse during COVID-19, with big increases in level of aggression, isolation and distress due to financial stress.

How often do we make spending decisions we regret later? Most people would probably identify with this when they reflect on purchases made without planning – especially with Christmas gifts and Christmas shopping. Overall, we spend far more at Christmas than any other time of the year and it’s growing every year. Roy Morgan Research predicts Christmas period spending in Australia for the six weeks leading up to Christmas Eve will be $54.3 billion, up 2.8 per cent from last Christmas.

‘Mindless’ shopping – where we are not fully aware of our financial position or what it is what really want to buy – can become a vicious cycle whether we are doing it online or at a real ‘bricks and mortar’ store. Spending too much quickly results in financial stress, which creates uncomfortable feelings that we paradoxically deal with by buying more for the quick feelgood hit of dopamine.

“Trying to relieve short term emotional discomfort around money by compulsively purchasing things will compound a difficult financial situation and produce even more stress. Doing a few minutes of mindfulness can stop that cycle and having a mindfulness practice can turn that behaviour around.” Dr Takagi says spending is a behaviour positively impacted by mindfulness and mindful practices.

WORKPLACE STRESS

Everyone knows it: that special kind of pre-Christmas madness in the office. We feel pressured to finish up all projects before going on leave.

If you consider the alternative – leaving projects and tasks half done – the Christmas work rush actually makes a lot of sense. Who really wants work hanging over them while they’re on holiday? It’s as reasonable expectation from our partners and families that we will not be doing work, or obsessed with work, while we are with them on Christmas Day and on holiday.

Dr Takagi says the rush to clear the decks is a big cause of tension and stress at Christmas but it can be difficult to avoid. “Sometimes wrapping everything up before Christmas isn’t reasonable but other times that’s just how it is. It depends on the company, the project and the commitments made.”

Dr Takagi admits being one of the many trying to find extra time to finish work before Christmas. “I’m trying to find an extra half a day each week to finish five different jobs. Yesterday I was writing an email which reminded me to make a phone call and that resulted in sending a different email, I was a bit all over the place and overwhelmed. Then if I’m not mindful a five-minute break turns into half hour and I’m really behind. It’s a really common behaviour to have a ‘quick-fix’ behaviour to deal with uncomfortable feelings that seems to work at the time but has negative consequences later.

“I take short breaks and concentrate on my breathing for a few minutes and that helps me to focus and stick to my priorities. Mindfulness is very good at helping me to make better decisions.”

Here are some questions to ask yourself that might help you get that Christmas rush into perspective:

  • Who wants the project wrapped up, you or your boss?
  • Will the project fail if it isn’t finished before the break?
  • Is this part of a bigger piece of work that will continue well into 2021?
  • Is completion prior to Christmas realistic?
  • Will you be likely to obsess over work, or even dip into it, on holiday if you don’t finish it?
  • Will you be more productive if you go for a week or two without doing any work? Why?

CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS

The traditional nature of Christmas plans – whether we gather to celebrate on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day – are enough to stress out most hosts.

All indications are that Aussies are that planning to splurge on Christmas gifts and food too this year, to make up for the social distancing and belt-tightening that happened earlier this year due to COVID.

Roy Morgan Research has forecast a massive 10 per cent increase in spending on food, which means crowds, long waits and products selling out across Australia from fish markets and department stores down to local shopping centres.

Heavy spending and a desire to provide guests with ‘the perfect Christmas” without doubt creates pressure which can lead to minor or major conflicts and tension.

Mindfulness can help us in several ways around the actual Christmas celebrations:

  • Planning accurately so we don’t buy too much food and serve so much that we end up throwing food away;
  • Catering to the tastes of all invited guests, not just expecting everyone to eat the same as us;
  • Having clear, simple boundaries around how much we consume so we avoid over-eating and drinking too much;
  • Being clear about the food and drinks we want and need to avoid, i.e. allergens, emotional eating, alcohol if we need to drive home;
  • Taking mindful time-outs if family gatherings are triggering instead of numbing emotions with alcohol and/or drugs; and
  • Sticking to pre-considered time limits at a gathering if we are likely to be triggered by the people present.

RELATIONSHIPS DURING THE HOLIDAYS

Isn’t it sad that one of the best things about Christmas and the holidays – spending time with loved ones – can actually be the first casualty of festive stress?

We all value family harmony highly for good reason. But under high stress we can become difficult to be around, either because we feel angry or because of another behaviour we use to cope – such as drinking alcohol, gambling or taking drugs.

Even without damaging coping strategies, innocuous and unexpected pressures and expectations can arise that can cause tension. “It happens with my sister and I. I love her dearly, but we really know how to push each other’s buttons too, better than anyone else. It’s always great to see each other but we can also drive each other crazy!”

Once upon a time, in decades past, we would have poured an extra drink or taken multiple cigarette breaks to get away from family for a few minutes. But today we have more awareness and better options. Again, Dr Takagi, suggests taking a breather in sustained close proximity to family, perhaps to do a 5-minute progressive muscle relaxation exercise.

It may seem obvious, but given the stresses of any year – especially one with a global pandemic – and the fast-paced closure of the calendar year, we do actually need to relax and recharge before going back to work.

“Stress and relaxation are mutually exclusive,” Dr Takagi says. “You can’t really relax while you are stressed.”

POST-HOLIDAY BLUES

What goes up must come down and we all know that is true of the relaxed sense of wellbeing and calm we get from a great holiday. But we have to come back to earth and face the prospect of returning to work, school and our normal lives.

A good holiday often brings introspection too: we can reflect on how to the good, the bad and the unhelpful behaviours and habits that might have stressed us throughout 2020. For many of us those included:

  • Unhealthy eating, drinking or substance use
  • Compulsive spending, overspending, gambling or shopping
  • Avoidance of our true financial position
  • Overworking or avoidance of work
  • Unresolved relationship issues
  • Thankfully, January always brings the opportunity to start the New Year in a positive way, which means a clear-headed assessment of what might have been holding us back in 2020.

Beginning a mindfulness practice can help us to see and accept reality, perhaps helping us to make form some new plans and take a few small steps towards the kind of 2021 we really want to live.

After all, we could probably all do with a better year after 2020!

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