Brené Brown has an insightful definition of stress The Atlas of the Heart:
We feel stressed when we evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to cope successfully.
Christmas is full of demands. And the adverts, movies, expectations hype these up to being impossibly extraordinary: the perfect gifts for everyone, the lovely time altogether, the constant socialising whilst being merry and bright, the magically romantic time with our partner.
These demands are unrealistic in themselves, but they also dig up deeper vulnerabilities in our lives: family or relational tensions, personal struggles or regrets, grief and losses, financial worries. The unrealistic demands of Christmas can exacerbate these to breaking point, because this stuff makes meeting the demands of Christmas completely impossible; and that’s just not OK at this time of year.
So how do we deal with the stress of Christmas?
Think of a jar with external demands as marbles being placed in it. Hopefully, we live with marbles coming and going in our jars; that’s everyday living. But at Christmas, the marbles can keep coming and coming, with bigger ones than usual. This can become overwhelming if our jars are already quite full with our everyday life. It can also become overwhelming when they unearth big marbles buried at the bottom of our jars that we manage to go through most of life ignoring.
How we deal with Christmas is then asking, how do we deal with the marbles and our jars?
1. Acknowledge the marbles
Christmas is full of magical thinking: from the stories of Santa flying across the globe in a night riding flying reindeer, to the stories of everyone being together in some familial bliss. Magical thinking can give us hope and energy. And it can be a curse for it makes our everyday normalness - that will inevitably slap us in the face at some point - simply not OK.
One of the parts of this normalness is having marbles in our jars. The problem with the magic of Christmas is that it can make it feel like we shouldn’t - or simply don’t ever - have marbles in our jar. But unacknowledged or unacceptable marbles tend to get bigger and bigger.
So, one way to stop our jars getting so full is to be OK with being normal, struggling, hopeful, regretful, grieving and hurting individuals, relationships and families. Of course this time is going to be stressful and bring up stuff for us! That’s OK. And we can hold what we hope for in Christmas whilst also having compassion towards our ordinariness.
2. Choose which marbles get in
Another part of normalness is having a limit to our jar. This is the limit of being a normal human, relationship or family. Once we acknowledge the limit, then we can start asking questions about what is actually important enough to let in for us individually and in our relationships. Think about the marbles that are in your jar: ‘Are these really what is valuable to me/us?’, ‘Do I/we really need these in my/our Christmas for it to be a success?’, ‘What is it that I/we need in this season and what has to go in order to make space’, ‘Is it actually OK if many of these marbles are chucked out and not part of my/our Christmas?’, ‘What do I/we actually have capacity for and what might break me/us?.
When you are trying to make sure big, important things fit into a jar, you have to put them in first - then the smaller stuff can find their place (or be left out). Perhaps we need to start with working out what these big, important things are first, as well as what our capacity is at the moment, and then let the rest find its place (which might be not in the jar at all).
3. Share the marbles
One thing that can happen at Christmas is that one party in a relationship or family takes on all the marbles, and the other takes on very little. There is good reasons for both of these roles: in order to make the day a good day, or simply not a catastrophe on the one side, and in order that we actually can enjoy the day on the other. In an individual, we often take on and balance both of these side. But when we come to relationships and families, we usually balance these out by divvying out these roles to different parties.
Now, each role has an anxiety around the other side of the coin: that the day will be a catastrophe or nothing will get done; or that, alternatively, all the stress will ruin the day. These anxieties and roles divvied out can make us more and more firmly rooted in our role, and more and more frustrated with the other party who just represents the other side of the coin we need.
If we can start to share our anxieties honestly with each other, we can learn that we both want to hold both sides of the coin, we’re both anxious in our own ways, and that’s OK. We help each other hold both sides as individuals and as a team in our relationship: being anxious and stressed so that we do what we are able to, and have capacity to enjoy ourselves, relax and not spoil the time together through all the stress.
4. Empty the jar
Because of all the demands of Christmas, we need time away so that our jars stop getting fuller and fuller and have a chance to empty a bit. Time alone on a walk, or taking out the bins, or making a cuppa. Time that’s relaxing to our body, like exercise, a massage, a bath, or just an evening in watching TV. And time that’s play, i.e. something we find enjoyable that doesn’t come with any expectations. In short, one marble that can’t be in the jar if we’re to survive is: ‘You must be around people trying to meet these expectations all the time.’ That’s a marble that will break us.
There is a caution with this, however. A very male response - and one I know well! - to becoming too overwhelmed is to escape. But this escape doesn’t deal with emptying the jar. It is full of the shame of not being able to cope, the shame of getting stressed. It’s the curse of the training in independence, capability and emotional disconnection that many men undergo in some form to some degree. Perhaps I have time in my shed beating myself up, telling myself to get a grip, sorting it all out in my head so that I can re-enter calm and competent again - only to find myself in the same situation with my jar as full, if not fuller with my own demands.
You see, going away doesn’t necessarily mean we are emptying the jar. It might be just escaping the fact that we have a jar at all.
We can then resort to trying to escape our jars in more destructive ways. A favoured option at this time of year is alcohol. But this not only leaves the jar untouched, but is also a depressant that can make us feel even worse. Alternatively, we can find ourselves almost inevitably resorting to violence towards ourselves or others. Domestic violence and suicide, even thinking about it, are rife at Christmas.
What we need at this point is to find someone to talk to. Little gets rid of marbles in our jars like talking to someone who understands and accepts us. Then we get to discover that our marbles and jars are normal, understandable, and OK. Then we get to start to work out ways to take them out so that they seem less overwhelming. Maybe this is a friend. Maybe this is the Samaritans. But at this stage, please make it someone.
5. Dive into the jar.
This is not necessarily the right thing for everyone at Christmas. Maybe surviving is all we can manage. But the Christmas stresses might be opportunities to notice and so to start working at the deeper things that need addressing in our lives.
What is my life all about? How am I spending my time? What does need to change in our relationship so that we don’t keep fighting all the time? How am I going to feel the grief of that loved one who isn’t there? What do I feel about my family that don’t invite me round or don’t seem to want me there? How are we going to do things now that they are gone? Why is it that I’m alone again this Christmas? What might I need to say so that others understand how difficult it is for me? What support do I need?
In fact, the regret, grief, sadness, anxiety or frustration raised by Christmas can all be energy channelled into making more significant changes in our lives, relationships and families beyond just surviving Christmas.
Ordinary people doing an ordinary Christmas
Christmas is extraordinarily stressful. But we don’t have to be extraordinary humans through it. If we can let ourselves be ordinary, and Christmas be a bit more ordinary, we can find ways to make our Christmases more enjoyable - not without stress, but in the stress. And if we can dare to let the extraordinary brightness of Christmas stress shine on our very ordinary, often a little ugly struggles, tensions and wounds, we can discover the areas of our lives that need working on. And we also discover the energy in the very stress that is brought up in us to work at them in constructive ways.
Perhaps that’s when Christmas becomes a little bit magical.