Perfect month syndrome (PMS)
There’s nothing like the calendar changing from November 30 to December 1 to turn the grinchiest of Scrooges among us into Buddy the elf, running around trying to make sure this Christmas is the most perfect yet. So what gives? Unsurprisingly, the problem isn’t Christmas – it’s us. “You tend to look back on the Christmases of your childhood through rose-tinted spectacles,” says Sally Brown, a therapist specialising in anxiety. “So when you grow up, you go into a frenzy of organisation and spending in a bid to create that ‘special time’. But you’re trying to re-create something that never really existed; it was never perfect.”
So, how can you learn to enjoy Christmas for what it is – an imperfect time with pockets of joy? “Stop trying to have the Christmas you think you should be having and start doing it your own way,” suggests Nicky Lidbetter, CEO of Anxiety UK. “Just because some people like to spend the day cooking, drinking and seeing family, it doesn’t mean you have to.” If you want to get up at 5am, go for a run, banish presents completely and have sashimi for Christmas lunch, that’s your call. Create new traditions and you might find you enjoy it a whole lot more. Brown adds, “The irony is that what makes it a special time of year is that feeling of connection and goodwill. And that’s something you can’t buy.” Amen to that.
Having to make nice over an Aldi prawn ring can strike dread into the most sociable of butterflies. Coming up against boring, awks conversations, whether that’s as your partner’s plus-one or with your own family, is mandatory at this time of year. “It might sound ridiculous, but try rehearsing the party in your mind beforehand,” says Chloe Brotheridge, author of The Anxiety Solution. “Part of social anxiety stems from imagining that things will go wrong: making awkward small talk with that colleague you have never clicked with or forgetting the name of a friend of a friend. Rehearse different scenarios, plan some conversation openers and make a note of any topics that make you feel uncomfortable.” And even particular people to avoid, for that matter. Yes, you might feel socially inadequate having to prep for a party, but research suggests that when we go into something expecting it to go well, it’s more likely to be a success.
The other reason for those pre-party nerves is the sheer volume of events in your diary. “Anxiety has a cumulative effect. It’s like water dripping into a glass – if you don’t empty it regularly, it’ll overflow,” says Brown. “It’s essential to incorporate some element of relaxation where possible and build in breaks from socialising.” Block out at least two slots each week over the party season for dedicated R&R – make one a weeknight and the other time on the weekend. Expect to feel a bit of FOMO if you have to miss the odd get-together, but a date with the couch can feel like pressing the reset button, putting you back in sparkling form for the next gathering. “If you really can’t say no to an invite ... make up your own rules,” says Brown. “Maybe you leave by 10pm, or only have two drinks.” Repeat after us: it’s just Aperol spritzes and a prawn ring.
From the onslaught of messages trying to organise “The Girls’ Christmas Lunch” to feeling deep envy at your boss’ #bestlife holiday snaps, the social media admin at the end of the year can be exhausting. What’s more, a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour found a strong link between juggling multiple social platforms and feelings of depression and anxiety among young adults. “Social media can induce anxiety at any time, but with the increase in posts at this time of year, Christmas serves to exacerbate it,” says Brown. “Don’t lose yourself in scrolling. Stay aware and try to monitor how it’s making you feel. If it gets too much, log off for a day or two.” Also remind yourself that what you’re looking at is a curated version of events. Nobody posts the crap presents, the bloated stomach or the afternoons spent watching repeats of Grand Designs. Truth.
Whether that squabble is fuelled by Cards Against Humanity or something stronger, consider a festive family feud as much of a tradition as blasting out Mariah Carey on repeat. “No matter how much your life has moved on and you’ve changed as a person, there is a family dynamic that descends at Christmas that feels frozen in time,” says Brown. “If you’re returning to the family home, the odds of changing that dynamic are stacked against you, because it’s full of environmental cues – from the decorations to where everyone sits at the table – that trigger memories and stir up feelings. It almost acts like a time machine, transporting you emotionally backwards to childhood.” If the same arguments are cropping up every year, it’s time to start doing things differently. “Enjoying Christmas somewhere more neutral instantly changes the dynamic,” continues Brown. “Bringing a friend can help too – a human buffer to encourage everyone to be on their best behaviour. Pause and breathe before you rise to the bait and get embroiled in years-old tensions. And humour is your best defence, followed by not getting too drunk.”
Love actually isn’t all around
There’s nothing like, oh, just about every festive flick to amplify the fact that you’re single or less than loved-up. If that won’t do it, those probing questions from your annoying aunt on whether you’ve found that special someone will be enough to make you want to clear out the booze cupboard alone. “The overwhelming message we’re fed is that it’s a time of year for families, couples and groups of friends. It isn’t true, but facing Christmas without a partner or your loved ones can exacerbate feelings of loneliness,” says Brown. “If you know being among certain people is going to leave you feeling worse about yourself, don’t be afraid to set a limit on your time with them in order to protect your sanity and wellbeing. And make sure you get together with good friends soon after to emotionally ‘detox’.” If you’re working over the break, can’t be with your loved ones, or are spending Christmas in a way society (or your annoying aunt) consider unusual, don’t sweat it. Brown suggests marking the end of the year in your own way. “Create your own mini ritual. And instead of dwelling on what you’re missing out on, focus your attention on the year ahead. What do you want to achieve? How do you want future you to be? What would you like to be different this time next year?” Quality time to yourself to focus on your wellbeing, plus free rein to hit the beach, cook your own festive brunch or watch Netflix while wearing novelty socks? Sounds pretty good to us.