Back to top

Coping with Christmas Stress

dog xmas
06.12.17

By Dr. Sally Shaw

Yep.  It is here already.  Christmas. 

Ok, well, Christmas itself is not actually here yet – it over 3 weeks after all, but the stress is.  The stress that comes in the lead up to Christmas.  That’s the thing that has already turned up.

And the media love it.  Every breakfast TV show has at least two segments dedicated to reducing stress (read that as ‘provoke anxiety’) at Christmas.  One will almost certainly give you ’28 ways to reduce the financial strain at Christmas’ while the other might be focussed on ‘what’s big in Christmas entertaining this year’ to ensure you stay right on trend, or at the very least, appropriately anxiety filled if missing the mark…

It is certainly a complicated world out there for the Christmas consumer. Unfortunately, I seem to be coming across more people reporting a sense of overwhelm rather than excitement, so I have stopped presuming that people are looking forward to Christmas.  Add Multiple Sclerosis and an Australian summer to the jolly season, and your levels of Christmas exuberance can go downhill rapidly. For quite a few people I work with, Christmas provides much more stress than it does joy.  So, what can we do to remedy that? 

Here are my go-to bits of advice for people with MS in their preparation for Christmas, separated into the ‘practical’ stuff, and the ‘way you approach Christmas psychologically’ stuff.

‘Practical’ Stuff.
Take Control (as early as possible) of the things that can be controlled.

1.Write Lists.

Sit down with a notepad and pen, and a cuppa. Start with a list of:

‘Things that are going to stress me out over Christmas’

I am not joking.  Identifying what will make you tense up/get you angry/annoy you or frustrate you, will help prepare you for it and get you thinking about how to handle it before it happens.  It will help you to be strategic when planning ahead.  Your examples might range from ‘not knowing what to get people for presents’ to ‘when my mother in law asks me why I am not pregnant yet’, to ‘when it is a 40 degree day and my workmates expect me to turn up to the Christmas party they are holding in a park’... I could go on.  Actually, I will.  They could also include well intentioned aunties asking ‘why are you still feeling tired? I thought the medicine was going to make the MS better’, and ‘have you got MS fatigue, oh, I get really tired too if I have had a big night’.  Sometimes predicting the things that will affect you emotionally, can help limit the fall out.

Then, start the other, more traditional, Christmas lists, including:

  • What to buy people (don’t include everyone you have ever met)
  • What to serve on the day, and most specifically, who to delegate the roast vegetables to.
  • A running sheet to make sure you get the right protein into the oven at the right time, or, if not having a Christmas event at your own house, get in first with the host to negotiate a contribution that requires no stressful last-minute preparation/hot cooking.

2.Create a budget for spending on presents and entertaining.

Remember, don’t go over the top for everyone.  Spend some considered time and thought on who you WANT to give a gift to (rather than who you feel obligated to buy for), and budget accordingly.

3.Create a time or energy budget.

This is super important if you have MS and experience fatigue, and should happen in November to be effective.  Determine what number of social commitments you should sign up to in December, to give you the optimal Christmas experience.  Is it really 3 or 4 engagements each weekend..? Or would a cap at one Christmas function per weekend, making sure you allow for one rest day, be more advantageous for you in the grand scheme of not burning yourself out before the main event of the 25th?  Remember, your aim is to enjoy Christmas, not just survive it.

4.Acknowledge that you are still in control of your daily routine:

It’s so boring, but it’s true.  Sleep and exercise are such an important part of your effective management of MS throughout the year… why would you throw that out the window when stress levels increase dramatically, and temperatures are soaring?

‘The Way You Approach Christmas Psychologically’ Stuff.
Examine your expectations!

1.What are your expectations going into Christmas?

Do you have clear expectations of what you want to get out of Christmas (spend time with kids or friends) as well as expectations of what will really happen (catch up with family who still don’t ‘get it’, and run yourself into the ground trying to get to every event that you are invited to)?  It is important to have a look at the expectations you are setting yourself up with this December.  Sometimes it helps to anticipate what you will expect from yourself in order to be more strategic and potentially more healthy in your approach.

2.  What do you think others expect of you? 

People frequently reported being weighed down by others’ expectations.  ‘My family expect me to have high levels of energy’, or ‘my family expect me to sit in the sun all day’, are easy assumptions to make, but I encourage you to look for the evidence of them thinking that way.  Could it be that you expect yourself to carry on as you would have pre-MS, and have never actually asked your family members of their expectations of you?  They may be thinking that you don’t want them to modify plans because of your MS, or they may be waiting for you to suggest alternatives that would make things easier because they may not know enough about your MS symptoms to make these suggestions themselves.

3.   It’s actually ok to say no!

Take some time to think about prioritising people who are important to you all the way from January to November (not just those who surface in December claiming that you ‘simply have to’ catch up for Christmas).  Say ‘no’ to others.  You can do it.  And once you do, you won’t look back. People may even applaud you for it!!  Commit to practising clear communication strategies by sending key messages that you have thought out in advance. Don’t leave room for ‘I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it…’ replies, as you’ll be bulldozed into it in the next breath.  Practising a clear message of ‘thanks so much for the invitation, but I’m afraid we can’t make it this year’ could be life changing.  Practice, practice, practice… it gets easier when you realise the other person often doesn’t mind as much as you thought they would. They are busy too!

5.What people think of me (and my priorities at Christmas) is none of my business!

It’s one of my favourite sayings.  Thinking about your priorities and strategies heading into Christmas means that you will be able to clearly define the best approach for you to take this year.  And that’s it.  Own it.  And what other people think of the way you go about managing your MS/children/time commitments/fatigue/budgets/Christmas schedule… is not your business.  They can think whatever they like about it, and it is not for you to worry about.  In fact, to be honest, we are all busy, and they are probably not thinking about you at all!

The invisible symptoms of MS can make dealing with our own perceptions of what those around us expect of us in the lead up to Christmas, really tough.  Look after yourself in December.  Hold fast and stay true to the strategies that you know are best for your health.  And what other people think of your strategies is none of your business!

Link to webinar of the same name:

https://www.ms.org.au/living-well-with-multiple-sclerosis/emotional-support.aspx#Christmas