The season of good cheer manages to have the opposite effect on a fair few people, apparently. One concerned employer, a large international organisation, has asked me to present a session to help staff cope with, as they see it, the added pressures associated with Xmas.
The financial burden, demands of family, unmet expectations, duty visits compounded by over-indulgence and fatigue can result in high levels of stress and the odd blown fuse. But it doesn’t have to be like that and we can prepare for the demands of Christmas with a little thinking and foresight.
Coping with festive stress requires the same skills as dealing with stress from any other source, but for many people it is also complicated by feelings of duty, guilt, expectation and loads of other stuff.
There is plenty of advice on the web, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of guidance on surviving the festive season will be dished out in the newspapers and other media over the next few weeks. There will be plenty of lists of dos and don’ts, so I’m not going to produce another one (though there is a helpful link below).
But all the advice in the world is of little help if the mind is not ready for it. One of the differences between people who are resilient in the face of stress and those who are not is how they interpret and respond to events. The former have usually worked out some sense of meaning in their lives that enables them to approach challenges with purpose.
Anything we do or are involved in needs to have purpose and meaning if we are to find it fulfilling. Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology movement calls meaning and purpose ‘the peaks of lasting fulfilment’ (2002 p. xiv).
These two are often confused; purpose is the goal, the end to be attained, whereas meaning is a larger concept – how we understand life or events on an ongoing basis. Neither of these is decided by anyone else, they are personal, derived from experience, reflection and choice.
I am not talking about the meaning of Christmas. Every year we are subjected to endless spiritual vs commercial debates and, relevant though they are, they should not be confused with meaning in its wider sense. In the end, for each of us, the meaning of Christmas, like the meaning we derive from anything else, is a personal matter.
So Christmas is a time of increased and conflicting demands which people can often find stressful. How we respond – and how much we are able to enjoy Christmas – depends on our level of resilience and our ability to react purposefully to any stressful event. Resilience can be cultivated (see APA’s guidance for example), so understanding what drives us and developing the habits that will help us bounce back rather than crumple could be a Christmas gift that we’ll use all year round.
In his book Meanings of Life, social psychologist Roy Baumaister says “People have need for life to make sense in certain ways… Four basic needs for meaning can be suggested: purpose, value, efficacy and self-worth. A person who is able to satisfy these four needs probably will feel that his or her life has sufficient meaning. A person who has not satisfied them is likely to feel a lack of meaning.” (1991 p. 29)
Philosopher Lou Marinoff puts it this way “If you already have purpose, then understanding the meaning of things can help you fulfill it. But if you have no purpose, or cannot discover one, then meanings are less helpful to you.” (1999 p. 210)
Taking time to reflect regularly on what is important to us is a good first step. Understanding the link between how our perspective on life (worldview) plays a part in how we experience life is the next. We can make life satisfying so that even demands on us that we might otherwise find stressful can be managed in a more fulfilling way, even at Christmas.
Read 100 tips for a stress free Christmas
Find out about Resiliency training.
American Psychological Association (2010), The Road to Resilience, Available from: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx
Baumeister, R. (1991), Meanings of Life, Guilford Press, New York.
Marinoff, L. (1999), Plato, Not Prozac! Harper Collins, New York.
Seligman, M. (2003), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London.