Keep calm and enjoy Christmas

Professor Nigel Holt

Professor Nigel Holt

21 December 2016

The season of giving can be the most wonderful time of the year but it can also be the most stressful.

Professor Nigel Holt is the Head of the Department of Psychology at Aberystwyth University and here, he shares his top ten tips for keeping calm amid the frenzy of the festivities.   

1.  Be predictable
Generally speaking, humans don’t deal well with uncertainty. Research in psychology suggests that uncertainty amplifies an emotional response. Put simply, stressful events are made MORE stressful by uncertainty – so if something is unpleasant, it seems even more unpleasant when you factor in uncertainty. Similarly of course, pleasant events are even MORE pleasant with uncertainty. But since Christmas is so emotionally loaded for many of us, I recommend having a plan and letting everyone know what will happen and when as clearly as possible.

2. Make a rule about gifts
People get terribly stressed about matching spending or out-doing one another with their present giving - so make a rule.  I think it’s different for kids, but for us adults - grow up a little! Some use Secret Santa, some use a price limit on a gift. Whatever you do, treat it as a game and take the heat out of the generosity competition.

3. Don’t judge - not everyone loves Christmas
Be aware that not everyone is super jolly at this time of year and stop trying to ‘jolly them up’ - it may well end in tears. It can be very charged emotionally and people may well be remembering loved ones no longer with them, as well as many other things that bring their emotions to boiling point. Let people find their own place, and their own pace. Give everyone the space they need and a way to join in - or opt out of things just as they please.  If you do this, you can go some way to avoid arguments that will spoil everyone’s day. Allow people to take a ‘time out’ when they need to – and know when to take one yourself.

4. Watch out for the booze                                                 
The break can be a welcome time to take a rest and a drink to relax. The problem is the run up to Christmas for many of us feels very long and stressful, and the tendency is to overdo it. Alcoholic drinks of many kinds are often the order of the day, with Champagne, sherry, beer and wine freely on offer and so the ‘done thing’ on the big day. Make sure there are plenty of non-alcoholic drinks and water on every table and at every place setting. When they are not there, it is all too easy to take another glass of wine - and the result may not be what you’d hoped for when you planned the day.

5. Keep hosts informed                                                       
If you are off to a friend’s house for dinner, and if you are vegetarian, or vegan, or have any food allergies, don’t expect hosts to magically know and to magically cater for you – and don’t expect them to cook separate nut-roasts with the walnuts taken out JUST for you. Call them well in advance and offer to bring your own turkey-alternative. Don’t make the big event any more stressful for you or for them.

6. Treat it like a film
Rather than getting involved when things may be heating up, retreat a little and observe the goings on.  In psychology, we understand this trait as that of an ‘observing’ personality, and it allows you to step away from the pressures building and not get emotionally involved.

7.  Positive thinking
I know it’s easier said than done, but in most cases, looking for the positives can be a way of reducing the impact of the negatives. Look at where you can find positives - in knowing, for example, that you have food and shelter – and a good film in the afternoon to look forward to.

8. Get things in perspective                                               
Again, easy to say, but not always easy to do. In many cases, Christmas with friends and family lasts only for a day or two. It will be over before you know it, so if things feel like they are out of your control and you are really not enjoying yourself (and you’ve tried your best to engage some more of the tips here), then just keep in mind that it will all be over very soon and you can return to normal.

9. Count to ten
Slowly. And do it again if necessary. If something is winding you up, then do not rise to it. Some people just love to create an argument or deliberately alienate people. Rise above it, count to ten and keep an eye on your blood pressure!

10. Keep smiling
No, seriously! Smiling is VERY important and there is a good deal of research in psychology about it. Apart from the fact that it makes people look younger and thinner (what’s not to like!), it has other benefits.  The act of smiling elevates our mood and makes us feel better. It produces chemicals that induce pleasure neurologically and it happens even if we force a smile.  Smiling makes others feel that you are more polite and importantly, smiles are contagious, so get smiling and see what happens!