Survival mode

How to get through Christmas with your family, with your sanity and dignity intact

25th December 2017

It’s Christmas day – a time of giving, sharing and being with family. Or at least, that’s what they tell you. But for so many people, it’s more like bickering, resentment and wishing you were somewhere else.

It might be that your stepdad is UKIP’s biggest supporter as soon as he’s had a few drinks, your mum expects you to help out while your brother does fuck all, your auntie thinks your nose ring has ruined your looks, or your nan keeps asking whether you’ve tried to get a good job because your cousin is doing very well working at the bank in London and why don’t you just get a nice, well-paid job like that?

But thankfully, there are ways to minimise the tension though and make it through the day without bursting a blood vessel, according to the pros.

1. Take a deep breath

When you want to control your emotions, the first piece of advice is always to control your breathing first.

“Family tensions, squabbles, disputes can cause us to breathe in a very shallow way which makes us feel even more tense,” says psychotherapist Hilda Burke. “When things start to get stressful, just try and bring your attention to your breath. This simple trick can help slow us down and soothe us when things are threatening to fly off the handle.”

Start [the day] with deep breaths and relaxing for 10 minutes

Barbara Honey, a senior practice consultant and counsellor at Relate, says breathing can also help you get the day off the right start. “Start it with deep breaths and relaxing for 10 minutes, and telling yourself how lovely the peace and quiet will be and what you are going to treat yourself to for managing so well when it’s all over,” she says.

2. Go for a walk

Christmas day can end up feeling like a really long day, especially when you’re not used to spending so much time with so many people who get on your nerves. One way to break up the day and to get away from the stuffy atmosphere can be to go for a walk.

Psychologist at Nottingham Trent University Professor Mark Griffiths says stress at Christmas can sometimes arise just because there is a house full of people with little opportunity for “me” time. “Try to find time in the day to do something on your own. Go for a brisk walk, pop to the newsagents, have a long bath, tidy up the kitchen while listening to a soccer match or the Ashes, or put your headphones on and listen to your favourite music. Do anything that gives you that much needed little ‘time out’ for the day,” he says.

Don’t let people who don’t get on stay in the same room together

Similarly, it’s a good idea to watch out for clashes between family members and do things that might ease to the tension so you’re not stuck in the middle. Honey says: “Don’t let people who don’t get on stay in the same room together – get people doing different things such as going out for a walk, or helping with lunch.”

3. Don’t feel under pressure to socialise

It’s easy to make yourself feel guilty for not making the most of spending time with your family, especially people you don’t see much of during the year, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of your mental health.

“If possible, find ways to shorten or eliminate the family experiences that put you in a bad, anxious or depressed mood,” says Professor Griffiths. “Easier said than done but learning the power of how to be politely assertive and just saying ‘no’ when faced with family obligations over Christmas can pay big stress-free dividends. Learn how to set boundaries with family so you can experience the true joy of the festive season.”

Honey says there are tactful ways people can avoid getting irritated by people they already know annoy them. “Get people on your side so you can be ‘rescued’ if you end up stuck with someone you don’t get on with. For example, tell someone, ‘If I’m not out of the kitchen in 10 minutes come and get me – say there is a phone call or whatever!’”

4. Plan and compromise

If there are unresolved family issues, Christmas can be a time when everything comes to a head. But it doesn’t have to be. “If you have unfinished business with your family, it might be best to agree in advance that Christmas is not the time to discuss it, but instead you agree a time when you will,” says Lorna Cordwell, head of counselling at Chrysalis Courses.

Don’t try and resolve difficult issues on Christmas day

Honey agrees, adding: “Don’t try and resolve difficult issues on Christmas day – make  a plan for what you are going to do next year when the festivities are over, just one thing like write a letter to the person, so that on Christmas day you can think to yourself when it gets tough, ‘I’ve got a plan, I don’t need to get stressed about this today. I can grin and bear it.’”

5. Avoid contentious subjects and humour people

There’s something about Christmas that often makes parents and older relatives smugly drop their views like a bomb, and then stand back to witness the effect. So while you might be trying not to start something, your uncle has other ideas. Be kind to yourself and remember that you can put your principles aside for one day if it means not losing your shit when your uncle makes an ignorant racist comment and other family members agree – or find it hilarious that he’s winding you up.

“As the son or daughter you might return home for the Christmas break and become the sullen teenager that you once were,” warns Jane Montague, head of psychology at the University of Derby. “Or you might relive those sibling rivalries that dominated your earlier life.

“You might usually respond in a hurt or angry way to that individual; however, think about what might happen if you smile at or agree with them, or if you walk away from them when they do it. Changing your response means that they would find it difficult to continue in that same behaviour because they are not then able to respond to you in their usual role,” Montague adds.

6. Ignore social media

Social media this time of year is full of an enormous amount of bullshit. When scrolling through post after post of “Merry Christmas!!!” with a glass of prosecco, or lads having a laugh with their mad dads, or – the dirt worst – “the boy done good” post that sets you on edge even if you couldn’t care less Thomas Sabo bracelets, it’s really easy to feel like you’re the only one having a miserable day.

“Don’t measure your own Christmas against that which is presented on social media. It’s not necessarily real. What is real is your own experience and that’s the only thing you can do something about,” says Burke.

7. Don’t go overboard with alcohol

“Alcohol can be a double-edged sword so be mindful when drinking with family members,” Griffiths says. “Alcohol’s disinhibiting effect can help facilitate friendly family interaction but drinking too much during family gatherings can sometimes lead to saying things that we later regret.” Amen.

25th December 2017