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Christmas stress

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ON THE FIRST DAY OF CHRISTMAS…

 On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me; the perfect present, delicious food, a splendid festive atmosphere, faultlessly behaved children, and a partridge in a pear tree….

Christmas brings unique stressors, and for many it can be an emotional struggle.  The stress management sages say keep the expectations realistic, appreciate everyone is under some pressure, limit alcohol use, plan a few social activities (e.g. backyard cricket, trivia questions) and where possible treat yourself to some down time.

If feeling isolated or depressed resources available include Lifeline, and if requiring a meal and social contact the City Mission Christmas Dinner is a welcoming option.  Last year in Christchurch over 700 people plus volunteers attended. For others who are alone, the day may be a chance to try something novel. e.g. visiting or exploring a place you haven’t been to before.

If you are divorced or separated, and share the custody of the children, or have multiple sets of in-laws, negotiating the day can be a challenge.

Over 30% of NZ families are Step or blended families. Just remember even what many consider ‘perfect’ families have degrees of tension. The literature on children’s emotional wellbeing is clear. It’s not the family makeup but the impact of any ongoing stress on children that create problems. This is not a time to ‘sort out’ disagreements, so aim to be cordial. Hopefully the day is structured so each child gets to spend time with each parent. It may be helpful to arrange events where everyone has a role e.g. preparing or sharing the food. Feeling part of something is a lot better than being just a guest. And reinforce and celebrate the times that are going OK.

For those who have recently lost a close friend or family member, Christmas can bring triggers of sadness and loss. We manage grief in different ways. Some find it easiest to privately reflect, others to express feelings openly. If you are able to express what you are feeling it will help the healing process.  Sharing stories with friends and families is a way of celebrating the influence of the people we have loved and lost. Include them in the stories and try and be specific about what you miss…”I miss them being there for…” “They would have liked…” And give yourself permission to enjoy the day.

If struggling ask trusted friends or family for support. If they are not sure what to do, tell them. Just making time to listen is their gift.

For some children where exposure to family violence exists, Christmas can be a traumatic time. The domestic violence statistics reveal a sobering reality. Police in New Zealand recorded 47000 domestic disputes in 2012 and children were present in 60% of cases. With the pressures around Christmas, such as financial stress, the proximity of conflicting family members, and intoxication, the incidents of domestic abuse increase. The multiple stressors in Christchurch over the last three years have certainly added to family tensions. The psychological effects on the adults and children of domestic violence are well documented. Consider a young teen in a family where the risk of violence is high. This is a time of year he or she may dread, and then as an adult with his or her own children, and partner, the same issues can repeat. For those who find themselves in this situation consider options to gain support. There are many ways of breaking the cycle of abuse and addressing issues such as alcohol use. The hardest part is the courage to share your experience with someone you can trust. There is help out there e.g. Campaign of Action Against Family Violence 0800 456 450.

Thankfully for most, Christmas continues to represent a time of magic.

Despite the commercialism and hype they are able to recognise the opportunity for connection, fun and celebration.

The appreciation of the simple pleasures of giving, receiving and sharing.

And what do we expect our true love and others to give us at Christmas?

Whatever we expect can make a considerable difference to how we feel on the day.

Graeme Clarke is a Clinical Psychologist who specialises in trauma, depression, anxiety, couples therapy, Clinical Hypnosis, and Sport Psychology. You can learn more about his work at www.christchurchpsychology.co.nz

 Published in The Christchurch Press December 12 2013, The Southland Times   December 13 2013.

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