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For those of us who celebrate Christmas, it is nothing new to say the combination of forced festivities and excessive consumption can be stressful.
One 2016 survey, by the UK-based charity Mind, found that a third of people struggling with a mental illness feel unable to cope during the festive season. One reason for this is the pressure to be happy at Christmas, which can be excruciating for those suffering from a mental health condition. It magnifies your internal state, and if your internal state is in turmoil, an inability to live up to the expected joyful mood is a constant, critical reminder of that.
As a result, you may feel like you are failing, which can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms. If an individual is highly successful, these problems are often exacerbated because wealth brings with it the implicit assumption that you should be happy and grateful. But rather than trying to live up to the expectations that surround the festive season, it is vital to accept how you feel and reach out with honesty to friends and family.
We asked our experts what makes it such a difficult time of year for many and how to cope with it in a healthy way.
It is an exhausting time for anyone managing addiction or mental health issues, particularly high-net-worth individuals who are likely to be invited to multiple social events where others are over indulging. The pressure to join in and the stamina it takes to constantly say no can be overwhelming. For celebrities, balancing the need to document their life on social media and attend interviews to promote their work, with looking after their wellbeing, is hard to get right. Equally for business leaders, the expectation they will relax at Christmas and switch off completely from work can cause stress in itself.
There is an innate connection between the expectations placed on someone, either by themselves or those around them, and anxiety disorders.
Managing these expectations is difficult for everyone, but it is especially tricky in affluent households. Studies have shown that one of the leading causes of mental illness in the children of wealthy parents is the pressure of perceived parental expectations. As a result, Christmas can be a challenging time. For example, many parents work long hours, seven days a week. Which means the expectation to spend so much time with them at Christmas is so far removed from a child’s normal life it can increase anxiety.
At the other end of the spectrum, successful people who return home for Christmas may have to battle a unique form of alienation. A young celebrity who has recently become wealthy has lots of confusing scenarios to navigate. For example, if they spend too much on gifts they draw attention to their lifestyle and perhaps risk overshadowing their siblings. However, if they spend too little, that may also cause resentment. Their new status changes the landscape at home, creates ambiguous emotions and blurs expectations, which can make them feel estranged from their roots.
For successful individuals and celebrities, the increase in social and emotional expectations, or a sense of estrangement from loved ones, can perpetuate feelings of anxiety and stress. At a time when alcohol overconsumption is so widespread, it is easy to start using it as a coping mechanism. However, alcohol is a depressant, and using it to manage anxiety perpetuates the problem.
What’s more, for wealthy individuals who live excessive lifestyles throughout the year and use substances as an emotional coping mechanism, the expectation to indulge can push them over the edge. Similarly, for those struggling with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, the abundance of food and drink on Christmas Day creates an extremely stressful environment.
There are a number of things you can do to manage the multiple stressors you’re likely to face this Christmas. Here are five to try.
What we are feeling determines where we focus our attention and thoughts, which in turn leads to actions. Christmas Day can be emotionally challenging and cause negative patterns of behaviour to emerge, particularly for successful individuals who feel estranged from their extended family.
Perhaps an argument broke out between you and a family member last year. When Christmas Day arrives this year, the memory of the fight may remind you of the negative feelings attached to it. This could in turn stir up the anger and resentment you felt once again. Reflecting on where these feelings are coming from before acting on them can help you avoid confrontation or using substances to repress them.
In All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare writes that “Oft expectation fails, and most oft there where most it promises,” which roughly translates as “high expectations lead to heartache.” As we’ve mentioned, the expectation on wealthy people to attend social events and project a facade of happiness at Christmas can be emotionally exhausting.
Managing your expectations and those of others requires a realistic approach to what is achievable — both in terms of festive activities and emotional wellbeing. If it is impossible for you to feel merry or experience child-like joy on Christmas Day, admit that to yourself. Accepting how you feel rather than punishing yourself for it is an act of self compassion.
One way to avoid leaning on substances such as alcohol as a coping mechanism is to witness the thought processes that lead to a decision to drink. Mindfulness can help you cultivate this self-awareness. If you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, rather than projecting that feeling onto those around you, recognise the feeling’s existence and process it by going for a walk or taking time to yourself.
The Christmas to-do list is always long. For successful people living in the public eye, this includes numerous social events, which increases their work schedule just when their loved ones want to see them. What’s more, extreme success is often driven by perfectionism. It is a useful trait in the pursuit of difficult goals, but it can also lead you to try and please everyone.
That means your needs get put last. It is critical to be compassionate with yourself at this time of year and be realistic with what is achievable. You cannot please all of the people all of the time. Instead, prioritise key events and time with the people you really want to see. And get comfortable saying no.
Be empathetic to other people. For example some find receiving gifts difficult and may not respond how you expect or want. Rather than feeling resentment about this, embrace the fact they can still surprise you.
If you struggle to receive gifts, allow yourself to respond authentically rather than in a way you think the giver wants. For business leaders who spend their lives ensuring everyone around them is looked after, receiving presents can feel strange. Recognise this and try not to put pressure on yourself to react in a way that makes you uncomfortable.