Lower your expectations if you want to avoid ‘Stressmas’

Not everyone feels warm and jolly at Christmas. (pic: istockphoto.com/javarman3)

People feel the pressure to prepare a perfect picture-postcard Christmas. (pic: istockphoto.com/javarman3)

Think of the ideal Christmas and you’ll likely conjure up images of families sitting cosily around a tree with cheeks of pink and presents of gold – everyone happy, jolly and getting on wonderfully. At least, that’s what the media would have us believe. With so many tips on how to stage-manage Christmas Day, there has arguably never been so much pressure on us to be perfect. And for many that image is impossible to make reality, because they may not have anyone to celebrate Christmas with – or because they just become far too stressed to enjoy it. For many, Christmas has become more like ‘Stressmas’.

The BBC reports that people suffering social anxiety have a far harder time at Christmas because of the pressure of having to spend time with people they may not know or like, the stress of finding the ideal present, and because they may obsess far too much about how they will come across to other people. It’s a time when we’re all meant to be happy, and that can be hard to fake when you’re the only person in the room not enjoying yourself.

Then there’s the stress of the person who’s tasked with keeping everyone happy: preparing, buying, cooking and entertaining even the most reticent or rowdy relatives. The Washington Post reflects on the increased stress that women feel during the festive season: they feel twice as much overwhelm as men. So much so that some women have been known to say ‘Merry Stressmas’ as they sweat over the stove and serve another sherry to the guests in a bid to meet expectations of creating a ‘special’ day for all.

A survey by Travelodge suggests that women will spend 270 hours preparing for Christmas, and will only sleep five hours a night for fear that their house isn’t clean enough, their guests not entertained enough, or their food not delicious enough. The dreaded guests are mothers and mothers-in-law, with 68% of women saying they hate it when the mothers try to take over – with a third saying it makes them feel “inadequate and a poor host”. Many women even have stress dreams around Christmas: the top festive nightmare is being chased round the house by a giant turkey!

While the women are stressing, half of men think women exaggerate how much they have to do – and a third of men feel they could do it better!

Though, male or female, one in five Brits will turn to booze to alleviate the stress they feel on 25 December. The British Heart Foundation found that over half the people who took part in its survey said it was acceptable to have their first drink before lunchtime on Christmas Day. “For some, alcohol is the method of choice to relieve the pressure,” the organisation says.

The common denominator in these reports is the high expectation that people put on themselves. For one day a year, they want everything to be perfect, and anything short of perfection can feel like a disaster. I wonder if everyone took the pressure off themselves, and just threw themselves into the spirit of Christmas – rather than trying to make it perfect – they might enjoy it better. Difficult though that may be with a pursed-lipped relative at the far end of the table…

Personally, I like the advice from Corinne Sweet, relationship psychologist, who commented on the Travelodge survey: “It’s not only the turkey that gets overheated at Christmas: family flare-ups are inevitable, especially as people who seldom see each other are suddenly thrown together 24/7. Stressmass can be avoided: prepare yourself psychologically by lowering your expectations. Christmas can’t be perfect.”

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