Stress, Relatives and Thoughts of Christmas

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • We're moving towards December and talk is of Christmas. How do you view the prospect? If you're looking forward to it because you have good experiences then this Sharepost isn't for you. If there's a hint or more of dread, made worse by the prospect of a grumpy old relative, then pull up a chair.


    Here's a scenario. You used to love the idea of Christmas (maybe you still do) but now your husband/wife/partner insists on imposing their elderly mother/father. You now find the whole thing oppressive. You're also painfully aware that certain stressors are bad for you and, quite naturally, you'd prefer to avoid them. Your partner, whilst sympathetic to your plight, is maybe just a little desensitized since in his/her view, you've been doing alright recently. Anyway, they suggest, their poor old relative needs company at Christmas and we all have to make allowances for the personal and sometimes rude remarks old people make.

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    At the logical level we all know that Christmas has become commercialized and there's far too much pressure to have a good time. Christmas is also meant to be a time of goodwill and joy. A time when we put aside our differences and love our fellow man. At the emotional and sometimes the practical level this doesn't always help much. The private dread of putting on a happy face is already nibbling away at you. You try to suppress it, but as the time approaches it occupies more and more of your thoughts.


    What do we know about stress? Where interpersonal issues are concerned it can certainly be the catalyst for irritation and anger. It can also lead to divisions. Perhaps it might develop into a ‘right and wrong' division between you and your partner as well as a ‘me and them' with one or more visitors. What to do?


    At this stage you feel your options are limited. Stress is linked to fight or flight, so you may be thinking of making a stand or checking your bank account to see if there's enough to escape for a few days! Then of course there's reality. Neither the fight nor the flight options sound appealing or practical, so a sense of resignation begins to take hold. And now you're simmering.


    Psychologists are often accused of trying to make the obvious appear like a profound insight. So naturally, I'm about to follow in that proud tradition. To me, the key word here is ‘perspective'. The first issue to confront is that of Christmas itself. I have a colleague who, after years of stressful Christmases, now chooses to ignore them entirely. When I tell people this they frequently look horrified - as if he's doing something unforgivable. From his perspective it works. He treats Christmas day like any other. He makes no special arrangements, and if people drop by, they take him as they find him. I know most people would regard this as an extreme form of coping, but as coping mechanisms go, it works for him. I suppose one thing to take from this example is that Christmas is what you make it. If you build it up to be something extra special it's rather like an over-inflated balloon; fragile and easy to burst. Toning down what we hope or expect from Christmas is a good place to start. If everyone is relaxed, then it's more likely that things will go smoothly and less likely that hopes will be dashed.


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    On to people. Everyone has an agenda and 9 times out of 10 it will be slightly out of phase with yours. Learning to bend with the breeze is an important way to cope with your stress and that of others. Trying to see things through the eyes of others is also possible if you allow yourself to do it. Using the scenario, it's possible to see how the partner is conflicted between loyalty to a parent and loyalty to their partner. Equally, when the grumpy old relative arrives, let's consider why. Grumpiness and rudeness tend to be signs of loneliness or possibly even depression. Deep down the person probably knows how they are being received and they use their sour expressions as a way of covering over insecurities.


    So, just a few thoughts about perspectives and coping. This is the point where I invite you to add to the list of suggestions, or to pass comments on my thoughts. Welcome as always.

Published On: November 20, 2010