12 December 2005

Merry Christmas?

Last-minute Christmas shopping in busy shopping centres and expensive family get-togethers can make Christmas time seem less than merry.

Christmas should be the time of year that we all look forward to. A time to relax and unwind at home with family, good food and good cheer. But the thought of last minute Christmas shopping in shopping centres teeming with other anxious, irritable last minute shoppers, the rapidly decreasing bank balance, organising expensive family get-togethers where everyone may not get along and planning expensive holidays, can make Christmas time seem less than merry.

Dr Colinda Linde, a clinical psychologist who specialises in stress management, defines stress as occurring when our "perceived demands are greater than our coping resources", which is a feeling that threatens our well being. She also explained that there are different types of stress, for example chronic stress, like an illness, which remains constant over time; perennial stress, like Christmas, which occurs periodically; and hassles, little things that when compounded can be even worse than one main stressor.

Excessive stress

Although some stress is always necessary for functioning, when it becomes excessive it can lead to an imbalance that is both physical and psychological, which is destructive and leads to impairment in our functioning. Dr Linde went on to explain how to recognise the imbalance that stress causes. The symptoms of excessive stress include: irritability, mood swings, lowered performance, sleep disturbance, irrational and negative thoughts, and increased autonomic arousal (rapid breathing and an increased heart rate).

The reason behind many of these symptoms is that when in a threatening situation, our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes heavier and we can almost feel the adrenaline pumping through our bodies. This is known as the stress response, or the "fight or flight" response, which is a complex psycho-physiological arousal in response to demands from the environment. What essentially occurs, is that the systems that our bodies feel are necessary for short-term survival, are prioritised, while other systems, like the reproductive and immune systems, which are not vital, are shut down. That is why when we are stressed we always seem to catch whatever illness is going around so much more easily.

Psychological effect

Psychologically, stress has the effect of changing the way we perceive the world: it affects our senses, memory, judgement and behaviour. What is interesting though, is that as well as these psychological consequences, stress also has psychological causes. Whether a situation is found to be threatening and to therefore trigger a stress response, is entirely dependent on the way the situation is perceived. Situations that some find highly stressful, others might find challenging, or even enjoyable. So stress is a vicious circle: as well as being caused by the feeling we can’t cope, it also causes us to feel that we can’t cope.

Therefore, how you cope with Christmas this year is entirely dependent on the way you see Christmas this year. If you think it is going to be the same energy-draining hassle it was last year, it will be, but if you make up your mind to plan ahead and enjoy the festive season, you will.

Difficult families

Understandably many of us do have difficult families, and being forced to spend time with relatives whom we dislike, having to be jolly and make conversation with people with whom we have nothing in common, can create vast amounts of tension and stress. The expense of Christmas and the pressure to spend more than one can afford on the latest and most fashionable gifts and expensive food and drink, can be another severe burden. The debts incurred and the feelings of guilt that surround this holiday period can lead to enormous amounts of anxiety and stress.

To cope with this Christmas stress, many people turn to food, over-the-counter medications, or drink too much to try to feel more cheerful, using alcohol as a form of "self-medication". It is important to remember though that the initial euphoria and sociability soon disappears, and the combination of lowered inhibitions, old resentments and alcohol can lead to quarrels and injured feelings. Dr Colinda Linde states: "It is a 'quick-fix', so when you're sober again you have the side effects of drinking - dehydration, slowed mental processes, nausea and depression. Alcohol also interferes with sleep, especially in that you don't dream when drunk - which is very unhealthy for a brain." The prolonged use of excessive amounts of alcohol can aggravate our stress levels.

To cope throughout this time of turmoil, it is best to be prepared and to plan your Christmas.

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