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Smile You Gits

Coping With Family Stress at Christmas

Mental Health

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LAB Series

Rich Taylor on the realities of xmas with the fam, and how best to manage it...

Family. Like ’em or loathe ’em, you’re probably going to be spending time in close proximity together around this time of year. Society expects it, as we all gather round the tree and break bread in the form of mince pies and Bailey’s.

But it’s not always an easy time for a plethora of reasons, and when you’ve got to deal with your own stresses and strains, these can be amplified when surrounded by loved ones. So what can you do, aside from raiding the Christmas booze drawer that you know is strictly off limits until the big day?

I’m no expert, but I’ve had my fair share of Christmas holidays spent with family where I’ve had to navigate difficult conversations and situations I’d rather not be in. So let me impart some wisdom, and hopefully it’ll help ease the tension.

Picture the scene; a few too many lagers have been sunk, the sherry is open already and only half the bottle of brandy is left for the Christmas pud. Whether you partake in a spot of alcohol at Christmas, undoubtedly someone in the family will get too drunk too soon and start an argument. It’ll probably be over something stupid like the roasties not being crispy enough, but it’s bound to happen. This might even be you, and I’d like to remind you that you don’t have to drink just because it’s Christmas.

Alcohol can be a great lubricator and help ease any tension in moderation, but being cooped up with relatives and drinking too much is always a recipe for disaster. It’s no coincidence that in an article I wrote about depression at Christmas, alcohol was discussed there, too. Be mindful of what plonk you’re guzzling this year and don’t be afraid to broach this with your family and open up the conversation.

Food is another hot topic and a likely cause of stress and family arguments at Christmas. Your Nan’s always got the best way to cook the turkey but your mother-in-law wants to make her mark and your uncle couldn’t care less, so long as he gets the dark meat. I appreciate that I’m painting a very stereotypical portrait here, but food genuinely causes stress at the best of times. It can be hard when it is one person’s way or the highway, and if a relative wants to get more involved but is being a nuisance or isn’t needed, get Cluedo out of the cupboard, chuck a Ferrero Rocher in their direction and keep them busy. The old adage truly applies; too many cooks spoil the broth.

The typical tropes of Christmas aside, dealing with family stress takes an emotional toll on all involved, and this might not always be obvious.

Sometimes, the simple act of giving a family member space to air their grievances without judgement can do wonders for the harmony of the house. Because, what is often told to us around Christmas is that we need to be frantically running around buying presents and making everything look nice and festive. Simultaneously, we should be relaxing, putting our feet up and enjoying the break, so using this time to really engage with members of your family and share your burdens is a wise use of this downtime. My Nan always used to say that a problem shared is a problem halved, and she’s dead right (as she was about most things).

Personally, the hardest thing I’ve had to cope with is being separated from family members at Christmas. The stress and sadness that this can cause is heartbreaking, and I’ll admit that it’s a feeling I still struggle with now. The hardest part is not really being able to do anything about it, and although we’ve got the benefits of technology so we can facetime and keep in touch in many more ways than ever before, nothing can replace a cuddle or the physical touch of a loved one.

The main way I cope at this time of year with these difficult emotions and situations is to escape into books, films, music, nature or video games. Sometimes, distracting yourself and actually removing yourself from the situation in that moment is what you need to do. It’s not running away, and it’s not hiding from the problem, but giving yourself a break is something you deserve. It’s a stressful time as it is, and forcing yourself to try and remedy every eventuality is firstly impossible, but secondly, it’s exhausting. Truly give yourself time to rest and recuperate, because after all, it’s Christmas, right?

I wish all of you reading this a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, because we all deserve to be festive (or not), and to have laughter, love and kindness, especially at this time of year.

Follow Rich on Twitter.

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