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Fifteen ways you can enjoy a stress-free Christmas

For many, the run up to the festive season can prove to be hugely stressful. Dr Claire Hayes on how to cope with the pressure of presents, parties and preparing all that food

While Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier, today is actually only December 8. We still have 17 more days to go before we discover that somehow, once again, we will have made it! We will have Christmas cards written and sent. We will have bought some presents. We will be experiencing that sense of relief that Christmas Day has finally arrived. We won't need to ask, 'Are we there yet?' because we will be.

Will there be a huge cost though? Might we be so drained, so exhausted and so fed-up with the 'whole Christmas thing' that we could be at risk of not actually enjoying it?

Christmas for many people is a difficult time. The 'festive season' can lead to excess drinking, eating and spending.

Rows may be more frequent. For some of us, people we love and loved will not be here with us and everything might seem false and wrong. Maybe it is not surprising that so many people actually dread this time of year.

I used to hate this time of year. My parents were in the retail business together and worked long hours, particularly in December. As a child, I used to wish that we could skip the first three weeks in December and just go straight to Christmas Day; I also used to wish that as an adult for many years. Then, I discovered something: I discovered that I could actually enjoy this time. I started to make some key changes. You might like to try out a different one each day or choose to focus on three that work best for you.

1. Be traditional - let the Christmas season start today, on December 8

If you have already put up your Christmas tree and decorated your house, you might like to somehow mark tomorrow as the 'official start of Christmas' by 'turning on' the lights when it gets dark and create a new Christmas tradition. You could do this while playing Christmas carols and munching mince pies. If you already prefer to wait until today, you have a busy few hours getting your house ready, so enjoy them. And to get in the mood, why not watch a Christmas movie.

2. Buy yourself an early Christmas present

You might be thinking that this is a very extravagant suggestion but I don't mean it to be. I am suggesting that you buy a small notebook. Call this 'My Wonderful Moments' book and every night before you go to sleep, record three moments that you enjoyed that day. This will focus you to notice the things you enjoy as you enjoy them and again later when you write them into your book.

3. Choose beautiful music to listen to while driving

December is a bit of a mad month. Roads become even busier and traffic delays are inevitable. Choose a particular CD to be your 'calming music' and notice how you can quickly associate it with becoming calmer.

4. Practise breathing slowly

People who meditate regularly refer to their meditation as their 'practice'. When I notice myself speaking quickly and rushing around, I remind myself to 'breathe slowly'. I don't always notice, so it has been very helpful for me to practice breathing slowly on a regular basis. Two free apps I downloaded are Mindful Gnats and Virtual Hope Box. Both have tools that can be very helpful in assisting in the practice of breathing slowly.

5. Choose to slow down

Life seems to have speeded up. No wonder so many of us wake up on December 25 feeling absolutely exhausted. There is now ample proof that we are more productive, more focused and more efficient when we do things at a slower pace. Choosing to slow down is a key step in actually slowing down.

6. Link "breathing slowly" to something that is particularly stressful

We each have different triggers of stress. Some of us experience finding a parking space in December as a battle. A simple trip to the Post Office in the next few weeks can raise our blood pressure. Whatever the trigger simply by deliberately breathing slowly can bring an immediate moment of calm - if we practise.

7. Manage expectations

Why do so many of us push ourselves to reach perfection? I know some people who, having bought and decorated a Christmas tree, decide that it is too lopsided, too small or too big. Do you know anyone who has made a second, or even a third Christmas cake because the first didn't really work out well? If we set our expectations too high, there is a real risk that we will feel disappointed. Asking ourselves if our expectations are realistic can be very helpful.

8. Balance

It can be very easy to get out of balance at this time of year. Sugary foods are everywhere. It can be seen as acceptable to drink excessive amounts of alcohol when you're out on the town or in the house. All sorts of items get thrown into shopping trolleys 'because it's Christmas' with no regard for the cost or waste. We know that overeating, over-drinking and overspending can have serious adverse consequences. Notice how you feel when you are in and out of balance and give 'moderation' a chance.

9. Gently recharge as needed

I am struck by how many times a day I now need to recharge my mobile phone. While sometimes I feel frustrated by this, I give it what it needs: to be linked in to energy supply for a while. How about we each deliberately recognise when we need to be recharged and give ourselves some time out when we need it?

10. Exercise as 'recharging'

When we get 'too busy', we can tend to stop doing what is actually good for us. Exercise is a good example. Make time.

11. Decor declutter

Root out over-sized trees and banish all those baubles. A simple door wreath can replace over-the-top outdoor lighting, a fibreoptic tree for one recently felled (which drops needles) and festooned with all manner of Christmas bling. Concentrate instead on three main areas of the home - a focal point indoors, the entrance door and the tree. Your home will still be a haven of Yuletide cheer without exhausting garland and light hanging.

12. Stand and stare

Over 100 years ago, WH Davies in his wonderful poem Leisure, asked the question, 'What is this life if full of care/We have no time to stand and stare?' His answer in his last stanza was very clear, simple and powerful: 'A poor life this if full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare.'

Have you stood and stared into a shop window to really see the decorations? Have you stood and stared at what you are blessed to already have in your life right now? Just stand and stare for a few moments.

13. Ask for and take help

Who says we have to do everything all on our own? Why not ask someone who is already going to the Post Office to get you some stamps, too. It can be difficult to ask for help and maybe even humbling to take it, but think of the benefits to you and to the people around you.

14. Honour what Christmas means for you

The word 'Christmas' can be very off-putting for people who do not have much time for Christ or Christians. In the US, this time of year is now known as the 'holiday season' so as not to be offensive to anyone. If you are someone who sees Christmas as an important religious festival, why not remind yourself of that in whatever way seems appropriate to you. It can be easy enough to do, particularly if you were blessed to welcome a new baby into your family during this year.

15. Create new traditions

Christmas is a time of traditions, but who says we can't create new ones? One year when I was a teenager, my mother announced that it was traditional that the men washed up after the Christmas dinner. It hadn't been up until then but it has since become a very useful tradition to have.

  • The 10th annual Aware Christmas Run takes place this Saturday in Phoenix Park, Dublin. Full details and registration (until midnight on Wednesday, December 9) are available at

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