How to (sleigh) ride your emotions this Christmas

Santa knows if you’re naughty or nice, but not if you’re sad or stressed. For people feeling down this holiday period, here are some evidence-based tips for managing your emotions

Valentina Bianchi, Paul Garrett, Lindsie Arthur-Hulme, Dr Ella Moeck, & Dr Katharine Greenaway, University of Melbourne

Valentina BianchiDr Ella Moeck

Published 21 December 2020

2020 has been marked by catastrophic bushfires, tense international politics, extended and isolating restrictions, and a global pandemic.

As this overburdened year comes to a close and the ‘festive season’ approaches, this period can be difficult to navigate at the best of times, and it certainly hasn’t been the best of times.

The Christmas period can be difficult to navigate at the best of times. Picture: Shutterstock

Although it’s supposed to be a time of joy, Christmas can be a stressful and sad time for many. In fact, people commonly report feeling negative during this period. And while unwanted gifts can be returned, it can be trickier to manage unwanted emotions.

Fortunately, science has some answers about how to manage your emotions this Christmas season.

Avoiding a blue christmas

While some Australians and internationals based Down Under are welcoming the opportunity to travel and gather with family and friends, many are still unable to do so as a result of travel restrictions.

For these people, feelings of sadness and loneliness could make Christmas a bittersweet affair. Although it may be tempting to dwell on missing loved ones, ruminating on the same thoughts and feelings can make us feel worse.

Reaching out for emotional support, like talking to others about your feelings of loneliness, can provide an immediate boost to your mood.

But for many, these negative feelings have been building throughout the year, and will only be exacerbated by pressure to have ‘the perfect Christmas’ with presents, family and food. In the case of persistent feelings of sadness and loneliness, research suggests cognitive reappraisal can help.

The separation from loved ones is also an opportunity to connect more often or more deeply through technology. Picture: Getty Images

Cognitive reappraisal involves reframing how we view an event in order to change how we feel.

For example, to reduce feelings of sadness you could think about the distance from loved ones in a positive light – seeing it as an opportunity to connect more often or more deeply through technology.

Alternatively, you might reappraise your feelings of disappointment by focusing on recreating the festive spirit at a time when everyone can be together safely.

Creating some shared rituals, like playing games, eating the same meal, or simultaneously watching holiday movies, can also help maintain the sense of connection that comes with the holidays, despite the physical distance.

Guaranteeing all is calm

For those who are able to gather with family and friends for the holidays – their excitement might still be mixed with stress and worry.

Many Australians face financial difficulties at the moment.

The pressure of buying gifts is likely to exacerbate the negative effect of financial stress on well-being. Accepting and reappraising the situation as an opportunity to make gifts – like propagating plants, baking gingerbread cookies or painting – can help people cope with this challenge.

Making gifts like propagating plants can help people cope with he pressure of buying gifts. Picture: Getty Images

Social and health anxiety may also be running high, as people gather in larger groups for the first time following prolonged lockdowns. For some, crossing a state border where masks are not the norm will be a culture shock.

Having spent such a prolonged period of time in a heightened state of alert, it’s natural to feel on edge when travelling this Christmas.

Discomfort, anxiety, and uncertainty will accompany thoughts like “Why aren’t people wearing masks? Can we hug in public? Why are people so close together? And where is the hand sanitiser?!”

Mindfulness techniques can help calm your physical body, reducing a quickened heart rate and rapid breathing to a more normal rate. The techniques work by focusing your attention on specific aspects of your body – naming five senses you can feel, hear, taste, smell, and touch – and grounding your mind and body in the current moment.

Best of all, mindfulness can be done anywhere at any time.

Distracting yourself from negative feelings is also an effective way of lowering stress and anxiety, but might only work in the short term. In the longer term, it’s important to notice and accept your own and others’ challenging feelings.

Recognising and accepting your emotions is an effective coping mechanism, especially in 2020. In fact, letting others know how you feel, and normalising these shared experiences might just be the best gift we can give one another this holiday season.

Even though it might be tough, holidays can be a good time to be grateful for people or things that you love in life. Picture: Getty Images

Have yourself a merry little christmas

Of course, if things are really challenging, reach out to your GP, trained mental health clinicians or available after-hours services such as Beyond Blue and Lifeline.

Even though it might be tough, holidays can be a good time to be grateful for people or things that you love in life. Or if you can’t feel glad at the moment, try looking to the future with hope that things will improve.

Everyone loves a Christmas stocking full of gifts, and similarly it can be good to use a number of different strategies to deal with your emotions rather than relying on the same one all the time.

Alternating between reappraisal, distraction, acceptance, and social sharing to manage your emotions could be the key to making sure this Christmas really is merry and bright.

Happy Holidays from the FEEL Lab.

Banner: Getty Images

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