Top 10 seasonal stress-busters

Health correspondent

When the Christmas spirit starts running low, try these tips to turn down the tension.

If you’re contemplating the annual family get-together with a mixture of pleasure and panic, you’re not alone. You can help things to run smoothly if you’re prepared for what could go wrong and have tactics in mind to nip trouble in the bud.

1. Deflect the troublemakers

So your aunt and your brother still haven’t forgiven each other for the incident with the video camera last year? And they’re both coming to lunch. ‘Prepare yourself beforehand,’ says Relate psychotherapist Denise Knowles. ‘Be proactive. Make sure that people who don’t get on don’t sit next to each other. Have a list of questions ready to ask both of them. That way you can show that you’re not taking sides, and that they can talk to other people. They don’t have to talk to each other, and they shouldn’t talk about each other.’

2. Get ready for Christmas

The more preparation you can do in advance, the better. If you’ve been able to tick off your lists of things to buy and things to do (and that doesn’t mean making your own cards and grinding your own spices, unless you really want to), you’ll feel more relaxed on the big day. And if you’re feeling relaxed, the chances are much better that everyone else will too. If you’ve got a home full of people enjoying each others’ company, you’ll have a good time even if the turkey doesn’t defrost, or the cooker breaks down.

Take a look at our Christmas host checklist

3. Share the load

‘Don’t think it’s a failure to delegate tasks,’ says Susan Quilliam, psychologist and agony aunt. ‘It’s a really good idea. One of the problems at Christmas is that people get bored, so if you have guests, giving them something to do makes them feel useful. Let your guests help with the washing up, take up their offer to hand things round. It will help take things off you, and will actively help them.’

You could start delegating even earlier. ‘One of the stresses of Christmas is that the person hosting the event often feels they have to do the whole thing’, says Denise Knowles. ‘If you’re the host, ask people beforehand if they’d be willing to bring or make something, like the mince pies or the Christmas pudding. Then your guests will feel involved and part of the team.’

4. A little less wine?

You don’t want to be mean when it comes to dishing out the liquid cheer, but bear in mind that alcohol can play its part in creating stressful situations. Alcohol affects the way we behave and can impair our judgement and increase the risk of rows and arguments.

‘Alcohol is a key issue,’ says Dr Helen Nightingale, Chartered Clinical Psychologist. ‘Over-indulgence is a problem at Christmas. Alcohol fuels irritability, anxiety, stress and arguments. If you have someone there who’s likely to cause a problem when they’ve been drinking, watch their alcohol consumption. It isn’t the worst thing in the world to run out of booze. It’s not about being stingy, it’s about being sensible. You can always ‘find’ some more bottles later on.’

Read our guide to coping with a hangover

5. Indigestion making someone disagreeable?

Feeling uncomfortable, or in pain, doesn’t make for a sunny disposition. Unfortunately our eating habits at Christmas – large, fatty meals washed down with plenty of booze - are designed to make the most genial of us feel dyspeptic.

Indigestion typically makes itself felt with a pain in the chest or at the top of the abdomen. Or you can suffer from your excesses with a dose of heartburn, a burning pain usually felt just over your heart, which can be so bad it you might fear you’re having a heart attack. There are other symptoms, including feelings of nausea, vomiting, and that Christmas curse, flatulence, which allows the rest of the party to suffer with you.

Help keep your Christmas indigestion-free, by following these tips – and try to persuade your nearest and dearest to follow suit.

  • Keep meals to a manageable size – you don’t have to eat two days’ worth of food at one sitting.
  • Don’t drink too much.
  • Eat regularly – don’t leave big gaps between meals.
  • Avoid large, fatty or spicy meals.
Read our guide to the symptoms, causes and treatments for heartburn

6. Take a hike

‘Getting out for a walk can be very useful,’ says Denise Knowles. ‘Getting some exercise means you’ll feel better physically, and that will have an impact on how you feel mentally. You’ll breathe in some fresh air, won’t feel so confined, and walking can help to get rid of any adrenaline that’s been building up.’

Don’t try to make everyone join you. People don’t like being over-organised, and breaking the group up for a while can also help relieve stress as everyone has more space. ‘One of the problems with Christmas is that people are put together for too long and don’t get the opportunity for internal time,’ says Susan Quilliam. ‘Encourage people to take a walk around the block, or a stroll down the garden.’

Read our guide to making Christmas healthier

7. Diplomacy rules

Negotiation and distraction techniques are great cards to have up your sleeve if Christmas Day looks like it could turn snappy. ‘Try to prevent tension before it happens,’ says Helen Nightingale. ‘We know that one of the hardest things is to get angry when someone is complimenting you. So if there’s someone who’s likely to be difficult, identify their skills and accomplishments and play to them, so they feel positive about themselves and feel valued.’

It’s also a good idea to have someone else primed to spot signs of trouble and work with you to provide distractions. Organising a game, karaoke, or a turn at the washing up can all help break the tension.

Read our guide to defusing Christmas tension before it even begins

8. Anger management

If you find yourself getting angry, one of the most effective ways of calming yourself down is to remove yourself from the situation. Make an excuse to leave the room, such as ‘I’m going to check on the food,’ and get out for a walk, or into another room, for 20 minutes if you can. That’s how long it takes for the physiological response – the result of the adrenaline that pushes your heart best up, and makes you ready for ‘Fight or flight’, to wear off. Another effective technique is distraction – even something like watching television. With a combination of the two you should calm down.

Other quick tips to de-stress yourself:

  • Count backwards from 100.
  • Do something that requires focus - stack the dishwasher or lay the table.
  • Go to your room, the loo, anywhere you can be alone and read a paper or a book.

9. Take a deep breath

When we’re stressed we tend to tense up, and only breathe into the mid-section of our lungs, which means we aren’t properly oxygenated. Find a quiet spot, clear your mind and take a tip from yoga. ’Breathe in through your nose and take a calming breath, deep into your abdominal area,’ says yoga teacher Katie Broomham. ‘You should notice a gentle rise in your abdominal area, a result of the movement of your diaphragm. Really focus on your breathing. After 10 of these deep breaths you can really feel the difference, you’re starting to let go.’

Read our guide to peace and joy at Christmas time

10. Don’t make it perfect, make it fun

‘A lot of people, women especially, try to get everything absolutely right when they’re under stress,’ says Susan Quilliam, Psychologist and Agony Aunt. ‘But it’s OK to cut corners. Ease off the perfectionism. Spending time with people and having quality time with them is what’s going to make a good Christmas, and that’s what people will remember.’

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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