Festive stress: why the Christmas season can be anything but merry

Festive stress: why the Christmas season can be anything but merry
It’s meant to be a time of good cheer, relaxation and celebration, but for many, Christmas is stressful. The reasons are more varied than you might think

It’s Christmas! Time off work. Gifts to give and receive. Eating and drinking as much as you like. Seeing friends, family, loved ones. The atmosphere of goodwill and cheer. What’s not to like?

Quite a lot, actually. Christmas is often a source of great stress for many. At least one study suggests that it can literally give you a heart attack. Obviously, many people have good reason to not like Christmas, be it estrangement or loss of their own family or friends, trauma experienced during the festive period (with all the context cues constantly bringing the unpleasant memories flooding back) and so on. But, if you look at the modern manifestation of Christmas, it turns out there are a surprising number of elements that can, and probably do, lead to an increase in stress, rather than the opposite.

There are many ways to describe your standard Christmas decorations. “Subtle” isn’t one of them. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Sound and vision

Christmas comes with it a particular set of environmental features that could easily combine to tick us off, even if we don’t realise it.

For instance, Christmas (in the northern hemisphere) happens in winter, when the days are shorter and the weather is generally poor. There’s a wealth of data to suggest that reduced daylight has a negative effect on our mood, so that’s already an issue. However, consider the following: a 2006 study suggested that mood and wellbeing in the workplace was correlated with exposure to daylight, but also with general illumination and colour. It being too dark, or too bright, caused negative moods, suggesting that an environment that’s generally dark but regularly punctuated with bright lights and garish colours would be the worst option for taxing our brains. Now consider the typical Christmas decorations you encounter everywhere.

It’s not just visual either. Many complain about Christmas songs, leading to a surprising amount of coverage. In truth, familiar songs can often be perceived more positively rather than negatively, but some argue this is only true up to a point, after which something becomes annoying and unpleasant. Given how few of them there are and how often they’re played every year, most Christmas songs undoubtedly passed this point long ago.

A lot of work goes into Christmas. And elves aren’t going to be doing it. Because they’re not real. Photograph: Kacper Pempel/REUTERS

Festive workload

While it’s nice to think of all the pleasant aspects of Christmas, they don’t just “happen”, or pop out of nowhere because you wished hard enough (despite what many a Christmas film would suggest). Someone must do the legwork in to put it all together. Traditionally it’s mum, or the family matriarch, but whoever ends up bearing the brunt of it is bound to be at risk of greater stress.

Workload and stress are clearly linked, but just because it’s Christmas it doesn’t mean the regular demands of maintaining a household go away. If anything, because of work and school closures and more regular visitors, those demands increase. And heaped on top of this are a number of other duties (decorating, food and gift buying etc), many of which are pretty pricey at a time when money is increasingly tight.

All of this would undeniably combine to create a situation where stress is far more common, not less.

My five year old son asked why we don’t have an Elf on a shelf in our house. I said we did but the cat ate him. Photograph: AP

Great expectations

The traditional image of Christmas is, let’s be honest, incredibly optimistic. Nearly every portrayal shows a cosy cheerful, tastefully decorated home, surrounded by pristine snow, in which a happy family gathers to share a large dinner cooked to picture-postcard perfection.

Sadly, life is just too complex and messy to ever guarantee the mainstream portrayal of a perfect Christmas. And yet, we still expect it. The human tendency to expect the best is the result of a well-known optimism bias, something seemingly inherent in our brains. This, coupled with the planning fallacy (a related phenomenon where we repeatedly underestimate how much time and effort tasks will take despite previous experiences) would lead to many people expecting a fun, pleasant, relaxing Christmas and ending up with a messy, chaotic, stressful one.

Expectations (and the thwarting of them) can cause a lot of stress. And that’s just at the personal level. These days, social media means we can see how great everyone else is at their Christmas efforts, inducing extra pressure to conform, and even do better to maintain your status in your group/community, because losing it is another cause of stress. So not only do people have to do all the extra work required to make Christmas happen, they also have to keep everyone updated as to the antics of their sodding “Elf on the Shelf” too. No pressure, like.

Families, and even friends, can be a source of stress at Christmas. Not that they mean to be, it’s just that, given enough time, other people are just stressful to be around, if you can’t get away. Photograph: Caiaimage/Robert Daly/Getty Images

Family matters

Christmas is a time for families, if you’re lucky enough to still be part of one. However, while family support and involvement can often be an important facet of wellbeing, in the short-term your family can be a cause of stress. The obvious example of this is political or cultural clashes caused by generational or even geographical differences, which result in tense atmospheres or furious rows over the dinner table, particularly in these polarised times of Brexit and Trump.

Thing is though, even if there’s no obvious source of disagreement or even conflict, a prolonged period in close quarters with a lot of your family can still be stressful. There’s the relative lack of privacy that comes from having your house full of people, a known cause of stress. There’s also the loss of control as everyone is chipping in or in your face, even if it’s with 100% good intentions. Perceived loss of control is another potent stressor.

There’s also the weird aspect of regression. You return to your childhood home and stay with your parents with your siblings around, it seems like your brain “resets” and reverts to the schemas that governed your behaviour and thinking when you were in that context before (which usually bedded in over many years). Trouble is, you’re typically not a teenager any more. You often have your own partner and children with you. So now you’ve got competing perspectives in your head, with your “responsible adult” thinking crashing against the “subservient child” behaviour patterns. This causes confusion and uncertainty, yet another source of stress.

Eat, drink and be worried

Given how stressful Christmas can be, it’s no wonder people quickly resort to stress-reducing acts, namely eating rich food and drinking alcohol. ‘tis the season, after all. It’s true that high-calorie foods reduce feelings of stress. Ditto alcohol. But in both cases, it’s a very short-term fix. Our bodies seem to actually store more fat when we’re stressed, and alcohol consumption can quickly cross the line from “pleasant” to “not pleasant”, leaving us bloated, hung-over, miserable and with a worse state of overall health than when we started. All things that add up to more stress.

This isn’t to say that Christmas is, by default, a hard and stressful time. It can be brilliant, providing all the good things we expect and more. But it’s important to recognise that this isn’t a given, or automatic. It all requires time, effort and investment. Ignoring this will just make it more stressful in the long run.

Dean Burnett’s book The Idiot Brain makes an ideal present for someone you don’t like but are obligated to buy for as you can say “I saw this and thought of you”. It’s available now, in the UKUS and elsewhere.

If you are affected by the more stressful aspect listed above, there are places you can turn to. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

written by Dean Burnett
originally published in The Guardian
Cover Photograph: Business Images/REX/Shutterstock

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