A psychologist’s guide to surviving Christmas

A psychologist’s guide to surviving Christmas

Because Christmas isn’t the most wonderful time of year for everyone…

BY Debra Rickwood, 10 min READ

My immediate thought to surviving Christmas 2019 was to book into a luxurious health resort to relax and nurture myself though a well-deserved end of year break. It’s been a big year in which a lot has happened, both good and bad. I need a rest!

I wish… Like most of us, family, expectations, tradition tie me to the usual Christmas festivities, which I need to work up some enthusiasm for and try to get through with some semblance of grace. No one wants to have the Christmas grinch around.

I know that lots of people love Christmas – they already have their shopping done, the decorations are up, cards are written, recipes carefully chosen, hams ordered, Michael Buble and Mariah Carey on repeat play.

But many others dread it and can’t wait for the season to be over. Some are simply exhausted at the end of the year and don’t have the energy for all the fuss. The season is especially hard for those who have lost loved ones, and experienced grief and loss or family breakdown during the year. Illness and financial strain make it difficult for others to join in the season’s festivities and indulgences.


Often the hype and the reality of Christmas don’t match. Instead of peace, love, joy, giving and togetherness, Christmas can be a time of stress, family conflict, despair and loneliness.

Women, in particular, put pressure on themselves to be all things to all people at this time of year, with expectations reaching epic heights. I love the ideal of Christmas but it just doesn’t seem to all stack up and I get overwhelmed by fear of failure.

So, here’s my wish list to help me get through this Christmas:

Keep it simple

Everyone expects gastronomical excess at Christmas. And what was once just Christmas lunch has expanded to include Christmas eve drinks/supper, Christmas breakfast/brunch, and the Boxing Day BBQ, and every woman feels the need to release her inner Nigella. Instead a few tried and true favourites, lots of fresh seasonal food, and plenty of delegation to others to bring a plate will be the order this year.

When buying presents, it’s hard not to get sucked into the marketing spin of the season and go overboard. When I think about last Christmas, I realise those very expensive gift wrappings that we just had to have for everyone’s presents looked very pretty for a very short while. Afterwards the recycling bin was stuffed to overflowing. This year a sustainable environment is going to be front of mind.

This includes buying fewer gifts. Everyone I know has more than enough of everything. Many of us are trying to reduce and declutter – we don’t need more stuff. We don’t even remember what we got for Christmas last year. I recall when my children were little, they received so much from so many people in the extended family that I gave a lot straight to charity – the kids didn’t even notice. But I did feel bad about all the effort and money someone special had put into buying an unappreciated gift. This year I’m buying only for my closest family and trying hard to think of something they will value, keep and use. I’m certainly not buying for extended family, friends or workmates. I’ll make a donation to charity in lieu of all those additional and guaranteed to be unwanted gifts.

Be grateful

This year I will try to focus on being grateful for what I’ve got, and not wishing for more and comparing myself with others. This will start with a digital diet – turning off the devices so that I can be genuinely present with my family. And giving social media the upward flick so that I’m not exposed to other people’s highly curated happy families, delicious meals and fun-filled holidays.

Have compassion

The Christmas stereotype is of large happy families and their many friends all getting together for a wonderful time. This joyful hype can focus people’s attention on what’s missing in their own lives.

Many people are lonely at Christmas, for lots of different reasons – family breakdown being a main one. Children may have to take turns with one side of the family, leaving those on the other side feeling left out, and connections with grandchildren and other extended family may have been severed altogether.

The festivities critically heighten awareness of those who are gone – the first Christmas after the death of a loved one is especially painful.

I’m going to be more aware of those who are sad and lonely this year. My own father has been gone for a long time, and I always light a special candle on Christmas day to remind me of the presence of his spirit. This year my father-in-law won’t be there and lots of family will be keenly feeling his loss. Remembering and reminiscing will be important.

Reaching out compassionately to help others at this time of year can be a way to help yourself. But you need to plan ahead – there are many people who choose to volunteer to make their Christmas more meaningful and less empty. Opportunities to volunteer, like hamper preparation and delivery, or serving Christmas lunch for the homeless, are available, but you generally need to register and have to get in early. Unfortunately, as usual, I haven’t got my act together to anything this year, but I always wish I did.

Stress less

Families are complex, increasingly so as the range of family contexts expands. Christmas can force together people who don’t have much other than ancestry in common; people with very different world views and values. Add alcohol, more time together, and plenty of hot topics to discuss, and things can go pear-shaped very quickly. It seems we are all more easily offended and increasingly opinionated these days, probably fuelled by the algorithms that are leading us to become more and more like ourselves via our unique digital worlds.

I’ve prioritised learning mindfulness meditation this year. There are some great apps that make it really easy to do and fit into a busy lifestyle. I’ve found that just 10 minutes a day can make a difference to my stress levels if I do it regularly and practice the skills throughout the day. This is the one time that my smartphone will come in handy over Christmas.

It is probably a moot point to mention the need to limit the alcohol, but this is clearly one of the best strategies to stay calm and keep things from getting out of control. Champagne often starts at breakfast and the alcohol gets progressively stronger throughout the day – I’ll definitely do my best to pace myself. Anyway, wish me luck getting through this Christmas – and same to you. Merry Christmas!

(By the way, I did try to book into my favourite health resort for a bit of a break, but it’s been totally booked for ages! Turns out that lots of people want to take some personal downtime at this time of year to relax and rejuvenate. So, I’ve put my name down on the waiting list for next year.)

Dr Debra Rickwood is a professor of psychology at the University of Canberra and chief scientific adviser to headspace Youth Mental Health Foundation. She’s also, of course, a Premium member of Business Chicks; connect at businesschicks.com.

Read next: Premium Member Holiday Gift Guide


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