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Coping with the Emotional Stress of Christmas

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Ah, Christmas--silver bells, mistletoe, shopping and family togetherness--a recipe that can lead to quite a bit of stress. Did you know that Christmas time ranks just below finances at the top of the list of what people find stressful and worrisome? Yes, Christmas has a dark side as well as a bright side. Where are you on the continuum between joy and dread at Christmas? Or are you all over the map?

For some Christmas is a time of joy, of family reunions, of generosity, of friendship, of gleeful children, of Christmas lights and of celebration. But for others Christmas is a dreaded time of pain, sadness or loneliness.

What people do and feel the rest of the year seems to get magnified at Christmas. Christmas is a time of excess: eating too much, drinking too much, spending too much and getting extra emotional. Child-care issues become larger than life, because of an intense public desire that children should have a good Christmas.

If you are alone and single, the loneliness can become unbearable. If you are having financial problems as well, the loneliness can even turn to desperation. These intense negative feelings can also be in excess at Christmas.

For younger children, Christmas is an enchanting time of joy and anticipation. However, try to put yourself inside the feelings of a 13-year-old girl facing Christmas in an abusive and chaotic alcoholic home. It's too scary for most of us to contemplate. For such a teenager Christmas is the time of year she dreads most, and she has no chance of escape with friends as she might at other times of the year. She awaits the day she can leave home, but until then she has no escape.

Yet 15 years from now this former teen will be coping with her own children at Christmas, and she will be wondering why she is feeling so stressed and sad, even scared, when she's supposed to be happy. Her fears are being triggered by the old Christmas trauma of her childhood. If her partner drinks, the emotions are further magnified.

A part of why things get so dark for many at Christmas is that a lot of "supposed tos" and "shoulds" re-appear, creating demands that are impossible to live up to. In our society, we tend to put more pressure on ourselves than is necessary.

Most find it really hard to cut themselves the slack the way they can at other times of the year. Most judge themselves more harshly at Christmas, so that the woman with occasional feelings of inadequacy thinks, "I'm a failure as a wife and mother." The occasional self-doubts of the alcoholic in recovery expand into "I am a loser, so what difference does it make if I drink?"

The key to understanding what is going on comes from developmental psychology. When children are under stress, they temporarily revert to a form of coping characteristic of an earlier stage of their development. For example, the temper tantrums that disappeared two years earlier suddenly reappear at Christmas.

Adults under pressure are not immune to this particular coping characteristic. Stress can cause us to revert back to less mature ways o handling things.

The couple, who learned in their twenties how to discuss an issue and reach agreement, find themselves in a shouting match at Christmas. The alcoholic in recovery, facing Christmas alone and financially strapped, reverts to a developmentally earlier form of coping: he goes to a bar. This is classic relapse. There are some things you can do help you deal with the Christmas stress.

1. The first step in doing something about your experience of Christmas stress is to be more aware of your own feelings and recognize that you have a mixture of good, neutral and bad feelings at Christmas. And that's okay.

2. The second step is to avoid laying the "should be happy" trip on yourself and others. Feelings can't be legislated, so don't set yourself or your family up for failure.

3. The third step is to have a plan for getting help if things become too much. Agree in advance with a friend that you will keep in touch and even meet periodically over the Christmas holiday. Make sure your AA sponsor can be reached. If things really spiral out of control, there are help lines and even help professionals available for emergencies.

If you want to make this Christmas a really positive experience for yourself and your family, a good start would be to plan on reigning in the usual Christmas excesses of doing and feeling and expecting. In other words get off the Christmas rollercoaster of highs and lows and exchange the excesses for a positive but peaceful and loving Christmas.

Dr. Neill Neill, psychologist, author and columnist, maintains an active psychology and life-coaching practice, helping capable people who feel stuck. He is psychological consultant to the Sunshine Coast Health Centre , a private addiction rehab center for men. Dr. Neill writes practical articles to help you help yourself to a happier and more fulfilling life. He is the author of Living with a Functioning Alcoholic - A Woman's Survival Guide .

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Neill Neill
Alcoholism/Practical Psychology
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