Christmas has great significance for many people and it also provides an opportunity to reflect on the year that has been. There are opportunities to catch up with friends and spend time with the people in our lives who are closest to us. This can be a positive experience, however many people can feel overwhelmed by time demands, commitments and financial pressures that arise during this season.
It is also a time of year where we find ourselves (willing or unwilling) to partake in the superficial aspects of buying expensive gifts, hosting parties and attending social functions.
It can mean, overindulging, staying up later, breaking routines as well as the good habits we may have worked hard to put in place throughout the year.
At a time when everyone celebrates, we can also be reminded of what hasn’t been working well in our lives, such as relationships or goals that we have set out to achieve uneventfully.
There can be a sense of obligation to see people with whom we no longer have much in common and a tendency to overcommit.
For many, this is also a time of year when people grieve the loss of loved ones and can be overwhelmed with feelings of isolation, disconnection, sadness and depression.
The Stress Response
When we are under stress there are different areas in our brain that become activated, acting as our ‘smoke detector’. When this happens, our brains automatically send a signal to our bodies to get ready to defend itself or hide. This is called the fight-flight-freeze response.
In the short term the stress response helps us to stay alive in dangerous situations; however when stress is chronic, it can play havoc with our physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Common physiological symptoms of stress can include tension in muscles, aches and pains, clenching jaws, gastrointestinal problems, difficulties sleeping, chest pain, dizziness, excessive sweating, tiredness and fatigue.
Cognitive effects can include difficulties concentrating, poor memory, overthinking or excessive worrying, and negative thoughts.
Emotional aspects can include irritability, hyper-vigilance, feelings of doom, helplessness, loneliness and a general sense of being overwhelmed.
People can sometimes avoid social contact and lose interest in things that were previously enjoyable, change their eating patterns, or engage in risk taking behaviours or self harm.
How Can I Manage Stress?
Learn to recognise your warning signs of stress. Take notice of the common physiological changes that occur in your body when you are stressed. Learn to recognise that these are the symptoms of stress, the signs that warn you that stress could be taking over.
Identify your triggers. Triggers are external events or situations such as for example loud noise or being ignored. It can include places such as crowded places or a person who reminds you of someone you dislike. A trigger results in an unpleasant and usually unexpected emotional response.
Taking the time to notice and then making a list of your known triggers can be helpful in preparing you to manage situations that may increase your response to stress.
Observe your thoughts. When we are stressed there is a tendency to engage in unhelpful thinking such as blowing things out of proportion, becoming rigid, believing that everything is bad or that nothing positive ever happens. There is a direct correlation between our thoughts and the types of emotions we experience as a result.
Engage in mindfulness. Taking the time to pay attention to the present moment can be an extremely effective way of managing overwhelm. When stressed our minds tend to focus on the past (often what hasn't gone well) or focus on the future (predicting or imagining), so essentially we are story telling. When this happens, we lose our opportunity to experience our current reality.
Practice self-compassion. Understand that no one gets it right one hundred per cent of the time. As explained by Dr Kristin Neff, this means recognising and acknowledging that you are having a hard time dealing with your feelings of overwhelm and asking yourself a question such as..what can I do in this moment to take care of myself?
Increase physical activity. Physical activity is an essential in the management of stress. It releases endorphins which are often referred to as the ‘feel good hormones’, relaxes muscles, and helps with concentration, focus and tolerance. Choose something that you will enjoy and preferably gets you outdoors. Try a brisk walk, jogging, yoga, dancing or anything that makes you move.
Practice breathing. Take the time to stop and breathe. Breathe in to the count of five seconds, hold it for five seconds, breathe-out for five seconds, then hold again. Repeat this for one to two minutes.
Stick to a routine. This is especially important if you have children. As much as there will be many outings and staying up later than usual at this time of year, routines (such as bedtimes, or particular activities you do together as a family) and clear boundaries (what is ok and not ok) will help children to feel secure and understand expectations.
Build in some down time. Regain some balance by spending time involved in enjoyable activities.
Develop a Plan. Once you have a good understanding of your body’s stress signals, triggers and thoughts, put together a list of strategies to help you cope when you are overwhelmed.
Practice prevention first but if all else fails and you are feeling far too overwhelmed, then have some quick strategies up your sleeve. Leave the room, take time out, do something quirky or completely the opposite of what you would normally do when feeling overwhelmed. Instead of yelling…sing!
Ask for help. Talk to family, friends, neighbours or agencies if you need support. There are 24 hour helplines that can provide support and point you in the right direction.
However if you find that winding down is becoming increasingly difficult and that stress seems to have a bigger part to play in how you feel or react to situations then it might be helpful to talk with a Psychologist.