5 Christmas wellbeing tips

Christmas isn't the season of cheer for everyone. For many it creates a perfect storm of stress: a combination of too much spending, over-indulging, the proximity to (or absence of) family members, lack of light, cold weather and pressures from the media about how much fun we're all supposed to be having.

For the merriest time of year, Christmas can sometimes seem rather overwhelming. In this post we look at some small ways we can take better care of ourselves over the coming holidays.

1. Switch off from work

If you have a few days off over Christmas, make the most of them. Don't spend your hard-earned free time worrying about what you have and haven't done at work. Embrace the quiet moments - don't be tempted to reach for your laptop to look over that project you didn't quite finish.

For many of us, reaching for our phones to quickly scroll through our emails is almost a compulsion - but did you know that doing absolutely nothing at all is actually good for our brains? If you're worried you're wasting time staring into a crackling fire instead of working on a spreadsheet, you're not: you're doing yourself a favour. Research shows that when we're 'unfocused' - i.e  daydreaming, doodling, or just sitting and thinking, our brain activity increases, and this is when we come up with our best, most creative ideas.

Of course, leaving work at work can be easier said than done, especially for home and agile workers who may not have the benefit of putting physical distance between themselves and their jobs. A couple of practical tricks can make it easier:

  • Switch all work devices off and put them in a draw to remove the temptation to check them. They don't exist until your next working day begins.
  • Set up your automated out-of-office email and make it clear that you won't be checking your emails or answering your phone until you're back.

2. Lower your expectations

It doesn't sound very festive, but inflated expectations of what Christmas should look like can lead to feelings of anxiety, disappointment and inadequacy. Social media and TV adverts have a surprising amount of influence over how we feel about ourselves, so when we're faced with images on our screens of perfect nuclear families laughing around glittering, gift-laden Christmas trees, we can start to look at our own lives unfavourably.

Remember that Instagram and other social platforms present a contrived view of reality. If it helps, shut down your accounts over the festive period so you don't feel tempted to compare your life with other peoples'. Even people who appear to have an abundance of festive spirit and money might not be showing the whole story. Don't let the extravagant Hollywood story of Christmas ruin this chance to take a necessary break and recharge.

Equally, try not to let your own memories of happy Christmases past spoil the present moment. Christmas can be especially hard when you're dealing with loss - whether loss of a loved-one, a relationship, or an old way of life. It seems as though everything is geared up to make us feel nostalgic: each year we're hit with the same old music, the same smells, routines and traditions. It's easy for old memories to come flooding back, and this isn't always a pleasant experience.

You can find some good tips for coping with loss over Christmas in Psychologies magazine. In a nutshell, they include:

  • Be open with friends and family about how you're feeling.
  • Remember you're allowed to feel sad and take yourself away for a while.
  • Enjoy a festive drink but know your limits.
  • Don't feel guilty if you find yourself having fun.
  • Don't feel bad if you're not having fun - it's just one day; you'll have better ones.

3. Don't overspend

Overspending is a common theme at Christmas, and it's often a result of the above point. External pressures from the media and even our own family, friends and children can make us feel like we need to spend a lot of money on extravagant gifts, decorations and food over Christmas in order to feel like we're 'doing it right'.

Money worries will affect one in 10 of us in the lead up to festivities this year, and one third of us will be using a credit card to buy presents.

Financial problems can have a huge impact on health, wellbeing and personal relationships. The Christmas fantasy encourages us to be hedonistic: to forget about reality and embrace the magic of the season. This makes it much easier to turn a blind eye to practicalities, which can bring up feelings of guilt and anxiety and become problematic in the long term.

Here are some practical tips for avoiding overspending at Christmas:

  • Set a budget.
  • Make a list of people you want to buy gifts for with ideas for gifts (protects against impulse purchases).
  • Shop around for deals.
  • Resist the urge to borrow money.
  • Make gifts.
  • Talk to your children about the reality of money.
  • Organise a Secret Santa style game with your family or friends so you only need to buy for one person.

If you're worried about money at any time, you can get free advice from National Debt Line, a UK-based charity authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority.

4. Think about others

Compassion for others is a core part of Christmas tradition. In fact, statistics show that the number of donations UK charities receive rises by around 5% in December.

When we talk about wellbeing and wellness there's often great emphasis on 'self care', which means taking time out to focus on yourself. While taking introspective time to rest and reflect can be hugely beneficial for you and the people around you, reaching outside of your usual sphere to meet and help others can be an important part of that. In fact, research shows there are several health benefits to carrying out good deeds, including:

  • promoting physiological changes in the brain linked to happiness
  • improving our own support networks
  • encouraging us to be more active
  • creating a sense of belonging and reducing isolation
  • putting things in perspective.

This Christmas you could ask your friends and family to buy you charitable gifts instead of material goods (such as protecting dogs from disease with World Animal Protection, or an equal voice for women gift card from Oxfam.)

You can volunteer your time and skills at Christmas to help with festive fundraising activities, community initiatives, providing elderly people with company and helping create a safe place for people living on the streets. Doit.org can help you find a volunteering opportunity near you.

If you know of any elderly people living near you, why not pop round with a Christmas hamper, or just to make sure they're comfortable and safe?

It's possible to help others in very small ways too. Make a conscious effort to be friendly and polite in public; be a conscientious driver, chat to your neighbour - even a simple smile could shift a person's mood and change the direction of their day.

5. Don't feel guilty

So far we've talked about thinking of others, having realistic expectations, being sensible about money and switching off from work, but these are all fairly high standards to set for ourselves at a time when we're supposed to be letting our hair down a bit.

You'll probably do things this Christmas that aren't technically very good for your health and wellbeing. If you do end up checking your emails, spending all your money and eating too much cranberry Wensleydale, don't beat yourself up about it. You don't want to be plagued with post-Christmas guilt during these last few days of annual leave.

To manage Christmas guilt, try:

  • Making lists of things you need to do to get back on track with finances and health.
  • Mindfulness - take a moment to enjoy the moment. You have plenty of time to get healthy and productive in 2020. Now is the time to relax.
  • Ease yourself into a routine - you don't have to immediately sign up to the gym, but going for a daily morning walk can give your days structure in the strange period between Christmas and New Year's Eve.
  • Appreciate your gifts and write thank you letters.

That wraps up our 5 wellbeing tips for having a happier Christmas. For monthly tips and advice on staying healthy and productive throughout 2020, please subscribe to our newsletter.