An honest holiday review and tools to help bring back the magic
Let’s be honest, what is depicted as a warm, cosy, festive season, full of smiles, enjoyable family gatherings and too much food, to some of us this may feel like one big game of pretence. Not always, but there are moments.
The holiday season is supposed to be fun and festive, yet why do many of us struggle to feel that way?
Some Christmas Statistics:
Looking at the statistics of this magical time of the year, I found the following:
- In the US, a 2015 survey conducted by Healthline reported that 62% of respondents stated that their stress levels this time of the year were very to somewhat elevated. Only 10% said they did not feel any stress during this period.¹
- In a UK survey led by the Mental Health Foundation, 38% of respondents experiencing increased stress during the holiday season and 49% reported experiencing family tension according to a study by YouGov.²
- A 2018 research by Statista, with over 2000 respondents in the UK, shows 17% of people feel more lonely during Christmas, and 8% says they have no one to spend it with. Yet, the same research indicates 76% enjoyed the time spent with friends and family.³
- Or how about this visual from a 2022 research by Statista, comparing UK, US and Germany with regards to Christmas stress ⁴:
Regarding the ‘less festive side’ of the holidays, there seem to be 3 major themes: stress, family disputes, and loneliness. For those already dealing with chronic symptoms during the ‘regular months’, it’s like adding gasoline to the fire.
In this article I will unpack each one of these themes, while looking at MindBody tools, and even some gift ideas, to navigate this season more smoothly, help you manage flare-ups and bring back some peace of mind. The aim is to leave you with a more hopeful and empowered feeling going into the holidays this year. So, where do we start?
Decreasing Stress during the Holidays
Stress is the overarching demon. The factors could be financial, family dynamics, unrealistic expectations, time constraints, travel, and the added pressure to end the year in line with the impossible goal you set yourself at the start of the year… Am I getting this right? Do any of these feel familiar? And if so, did you observe the mental and physical impact of this stress?
There are so many factors here it is hard to say which ones are the main pressure points, and it is often the combination that makes it stressful. While the reasons may differ, the tools to deal with them are the same. They lean on your ability to let go of control. Sounds scary, I know! Here is a 6-step plan to simplify this:
- Step 1 is always awareness: notice when stress comes up. Familiarise yourself with the bodily sensations so you can recognise it and work with it. Then reason with yourself for a second and ask the following question:
- Step 2 Distinguish: What in this situation is within my control? What is not? “If it is out of your hands, it deserves freedom from your mind too” is an old saying I try to live by. I say TRY because it needs repeating, even after years of practice. And you know what, that’s ok! Because worrying about something you cannot control will do absolutely nothing to better the situation, no matter how hard you worry, it will change nothing. Well, apart from your mood and stress levels.
- Step 3 Breathe: before you can start making any decisions you need to calm down the nervous system because we cannot reason in fight or flight mode. Conscious breathing is the quickest and most effective way to do this. Try this: breathe in, and then out twice as long, and do that 2, or 3 times. Another technique is the physiological sigh which Andrew Huberman shares a lot of research on ⁵. This is a double inhale followed by a sigh.
- Step 4 Prioritise: from the things that are within your control, prioritise what requires immediate actions, what is crucial and what is not. If it affects your physical and mental health, it needs to go down the list! Because guess what, there is nothing more important than your HEALTH. If you need permission to prioritise in this way, I hereby grant you the permission to put your health first.
- Step 5 Ask for help: we often think that we are struggling alone, yet there is this list of “most common” stress factors, because everybody deals with them. We often don’t reach out because we don’t want to complain, or burden someone else, but sometimes it is as simple as doing tasks together. Sharing tasks, where you help each other, the mere fact of doing it together removes a lot of pressure because the psychological weight decreases.
Dealing with Family Disputes and Dynamics
This seems to be a universal stressor for people during the holidays, since it is a time where everybody comes together and either loudly voice their opinions on one another, on achievements, politics, the cooking, … Or it is everything that is NOT SAID very loudly. You know what I mean! The undercurrent of unsaid words that are just as tense and noticeable. When the room is filled with 10 elephants that are collectively being ignored. Is one situation better than the other? Who’s to say.
One tool she discusses to counter this process is the NLP (which stands for Neurolinguistic Programming) tool called the Foreground/Background Switch. When you are feeling annoyed, or cornered, or feeling any type of unpleasant sensation because of what is said or implied, your brain automatically zeros in on this, and starts collecting more proof for this ‘trigger point’. What you want to do in a moment like that is zoom out and allow what’s in the background come to the foreground. Ask yourself What is everything I am not noticing, that is not THAT? So, not related to the problem or person causing the trigger. Widen your awareness to the people you love, the food you taste, look around what else you can focus on and widen your peripheral vision.⁶
I recently watched an informal talk by author and hypnotist, Melissa Tiers, on how to deal with family reunions. She explains that when we go back home for the holidays, we are launched back into the old patterns, and familial roles we had when we were younger, which can leave us vulnerable for triggers. The example she uses is “Back home you’re no longer the successful neurosurgeon, you’re just Johnny, the younger brother, who can never get it right” and I think we can all relate to a version of that. We then automatically go back into that old programming and the same patterns play out.
Another theory, which I think can be classified as an NLP technique, is Mel Robbins’ two-word mantra: Let them! It is one to use when you have to deal with other people behaviours that you cannot control. All you can do is control what you do, how you respond, how you deal with it. She advises this simple mantra, every time people do something that is hurtful, frustrating, or just illogical to you. You can try jump in and control the situation, OR, you can say this mantra to yourself: let them. This helps us let go control.
And in case you really love control, you can pretend that you are allowing them, which gives you a sense of control. But most importantly Let them, will allow you to give yourself peace of mind by letting it simply unfold.⁷
Dealing with Loneliness
Now the last and probably most complicated stressor on the list: loneliness. You can feel lonely both when completely alone (shocking, I know!) as well as in a room full of people. And it doesn’t seem to matter you are surrounded by your family and friends. This type of loneliness is referred to as emotional loneliness.⁸ Research has found that loneliness has more to do with true connection than the number of people you share a Christmas meal with.
Even if you are the biggest introvert in the world, and relish in the you-time where you are not bothered by others, during Christmas this aloneness just hits differently doesn’t it? And it isn’t always about being at a table full of people, even one true connection can suffice. One good quality friendship trumps all the superficial contact.
In a research done by Philip Hyland and colleagues, they concluded that “The perceived quality, not the quantity, of interpersonal connections was associated with poor mental health”.⁹ This reinforces the idea that, to combat the feeling of loneliness, we need to focus on quality over quantity. The next logical question then is, how do we work on quality connections?
Let’s start with the scenario where you are actually alone around the holidays, what are your options? One reoccurring tip I want to share is to see if you can join a volunteering group. According to the New York Times, a study of 10,000 volunteers in Britain concluded that it helps volunteers feel less isolated in about two thirds of the people surveyed.¹⁰
Or you could be the one to reach out to someone that you might think is in the same boat. People crave connection, yet we never want to be the first to make the move.
If you feel alone while in a room full of people, it is more about building a true connection. This is done by the scariest and bravest thing we can do: being vulnerable. I recently rewatched the Netflix special of Brené Brown, and I’m inspired again to venture a little further again. If you need inspiration, watch it, or her famous Ted Talk which now has over 20M views.¹¹ She concludes that in order for true connection to happen we need to allow ourselves to be really seen. And yes, this can feel like the scariest thing ever, still most people crave it like food and shelter.
Gift Ideas That Can Help Us Connect
The hardest thing about opening up, is often not knowing where to start. This brings me to a creative solution, I’ve seen popping up more often recently, and that is the development of ‘conversation cards’. Cards that you ‘play’ with friends or family, that allows for conversations that can help bring us closer to each other. I think it is brilliant and therefore want to share it here in case you think: Yes, I need this! And I didn’t have any present ideas yet! And no, they are not a sponsor, I just truly love the idea behind these, and they can be such a meaningful gift.
- Where should we begin – A game of stories by Esther Perel
- Conversation Cards from The Diary of a CEO by Steven Bartlett
Both are full of stories that can help people open up and share things they never shared but often are dying to share. Why not give this or something like this as a gift. If you are short on budget, there are similar questions like these online, maybe it could be a cool idea to make your own list of questions and make a game out of it. The idea is not the product but the connection these type of questions ¹² can lead to.
I hope this article was helpful, feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions or comments. Happy Holidays!
- Andrew Huberman’s short explanation of the research on the physiological sigh
- Melissa Tiers talk on ideas to relieve holiday stress
- Mel Robbins “Let Them” theory explained: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atkGprznf2w
- Hyland, P., Shevlin, M., Cloitre, M. et al. Quality not quantity: loneliness subtypes, psychological trauma, and mental health in the US adult population. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 54, 1089–1099 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-018-1597-8
- Brene Brown on Vulnerability: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o