(and some happy distractions if all else fails).
“If you think you’re enlightened, spend a week with your family.”~ Ram Dass
At this time of year, there are probably people who are looking forward to warm and friendly family gatherings with delicious lunch spreads and piles of thoughtful gifts. For the rest of us – planning to get through December on pure grit and stolen rum – here’s a list of things that might be helpful:
1 – If you’re going home, make sure you can leave.
We can idealise the places we grew up, but it’s worth keeping in mind that “home” is often the place that needs us to practice our adulting most strenuously. Even loving homes. Often the best way to be your best self when venturing into a family gathering is to make sure you still have access to your adult freedoms and ways of coping.
It’s worth thinking about:
Gentle strategies – for people who like going home but get a bit overwhelmed now and then:
- Set yourself up with a pre-determined schedule. Having a routine that gets you out of the house is a good, low-stakes way to give yourself time to get grounded. A simple version of this might be booking a few classes at a local yoga studio or keeping a routine you have at home like going for a swim, sauna, or just a walk round the neighbourhood. If all else fails ask if there are errands that need to be run – going to pick up groceries might be dull, but it will give you a bit of time to recalibrate and earn you some brownie points.
- Making some dates with local friends or individual family members can also be a helpful way to allow yourself to get centred and feel more like yourself. Is there some good sightseeing in the area, or a decent café? Sometimes grabbing your favourite relative or old friend and heading to a bar or restaurant for a quick catch up can help you feel more like an individual person and less like one actor in the family show.
- Pre-arranging a call with a familiar loved one or friend who isn’t with you can also work wonders. Heading out for a walk and call where you can indulge in bit of stress-relieving gossip and (non-malicious) complaining is an awesome stress reliever and will have the extra bonus of making you feel a bit more like your ordinary, grown-up self again.
Big strategies – for people who need a more robust way of staying grounded:
- Get yourself a hire car. If you’re flying in from somewhere and public transport is tricky, you won’t need to rely on your sister to loan you her car when you think you’re about to scream at auntie Joan.
- Ask a mate if you can stay with them, even for a night or two. If you’re in your hometown and still know people there, this can be helpful. If you have an extended stay planned, breaking it up with a sleepover or longer activity with a friend can help you press ‘reset’ and turn up for loved ones more grounded.
- If staying home is triggering (and it’s possible), try renting a hotel room, a room above the pub, an Airbnb, or even a camp spot. Being able to have time to process the day, sleep, and wake up at your own pace is a good way to be a better version of yourself over a long stay. If your family is bugged by this it’s possible to be frank and say, “I want to be my best self and I turn into a 16 year old monster if I stay home”, or you can lie through your teeth in a loving way and say you’ve been having insomnia and don’t want to wake the family up – whatever is necessary to preserve egos and also your wellbeing. A white lie is sometimes a kinder option (see below).
2 – Suggest alternatives to ‘traditional’ options that don’t work for you. And then bring them.
- If you’re vegan or FODMAP sensitive or just a picky eater, bring your own main and make it yummy and plentiful enough that you’ll want to share it. Domestic flights will let you bring cooked food – it’s totally possible to have a pre-made meal in your carry on (well packed!). If bringing a plate on the day isn’t going to work, do a little forward planning. Maybe you can ask a family member you feel comfortable with to hit the grocery store and grab meal ingredients as a holiday favour, or pre-order from a restaurant you like and either pick it up or have it delivered before the big day – perhaps the previously mentioned safe family member can pop it in their freezer until needed. Failing that, pack a bunch of great snacks, condiments, or treats that can be shared and that you can also eat.
- If the issue is that you’re required to watch Love Actually every Christmas evening, throw out a suggestion that The Happiest Season (which you happen to have downloaded) could freshen up the day. See the list at the end of this post for more ‘Holiday’ movies that don’t involve so much stalking.
- Gift giving can be a terror. If gifts are exchanged in your family/chosen family the first and best rule is to ask people what they want and then give them that actual thing – not another thing you think they’ll like better – just the literal thing they have asked for. Your idea of thrilling gifts might not be new golf balls but if someone has asked for them it’s because they have been wanting them. A bonus of this approach is that a wanted gift is much less likely to end up as landfill. If your family are lavish spenders perhaps suggesting a posh Kris Kringle is in order – would it be possible to shell out a bit more than you’d usually spend on one person for just one gift that your (assigned) loved one will adore? The cost of Christmas is terrifying, and you might be surprised how open people will be to this idea. Setting a pre-agreed spending limit with the family can be tricky but also worth it, as can just letting people know that what with flights, time off work, and the current cost of living you’re on a tight budget, so if others could please not go overboard when buying you gifts that would be great (because your own gift budget this year only extends to home-made cookies and houseplants you potted up).
- Suggest a new tradition and do some admin to help make it work. My immediate family has become very small over the years, and what with working around chronic illness needs and literally nobody in the family being able to eat the same things as anyone else, Christmas day had become a stress-fest. Then last year by accident all our planning fell through, and we had our festive meal in a restaurant on Christmas Eve, and it was such a novelty to be having a fun, easy and low-stress time together, that this became our instant new normal. While this isn’t likely to suit everyone, if your family has changed, perhaps changing the ‘way things are’ is worth talking about? Maybe the venue could move somewhere more convenient or practical, or you could all short-circuit family politics by having a get together in a pretty park. Finding a leisure activity that can be done together can be a nice update if your family has defaulted to a meal and drinks as the main event.
3 – Don’t drop your self care.
It can be tempting to give yourself ‘a break’ from wellbeing stuff when you’re out of your familiar zone, but if you’re not keeping up the routine that keeps you sane when life is ‘business as usual’, then what are the chances your symptoms are going to show up again when you have less control, fewer options for self-care, and a ton more interpersonal and financial stress?
- If you run or walk or swim or stretch regularly, then keep doing it. If you need an hour to unwind and not speak to anyone every day, then make that happen, even if it means sitting in someone’s car watching the X Files very fine Christmas episode on your smartphone. If you take herbs, keep taking them, and if you’ve flown to Darwin and realise you’ve left your meds in Melbourne, then get to a pharmacy as soon as you realise.
- It’s important to say that needing to pay attention to self-care doesn’t mean you don’t love your family. You might adore your mum and get on like a house on fire, but there is still no one on earth more capable of pushing your buttons. Taking care of yourself like the grown-up you are is not the same as blaming others for your issues. It’s just being a grown up.
4 – Grounding skills, regulating routines, conflict management tactics, and sensory modulation are effective, and let’s face it – you will never be in an environment more stressful than a Christmas lunch. *
- If you have worked on grounding or communication skills with your Counsellor, now is the time to write those suckers down in your phone notes, or in a pack of “strategy cards” and start using them. Stress is a creeper, and although that one thing that your brother said to you isn’t cause for a meltdown by itself, if it’s the last comment on a pile built by grandparents, siblings, parents, stepparents and a weird blow-in your aunt bought, meltdown it may mean. Why write them down? Because our brain isn’t our best friend in times of stress. If all you know is that you have a list of things that help (but can’t remember any of them right now), then you’re doing great – start by looking at the list.
- Regularly using grounding skills might make you feel awkward, but if lying on the bed for some progressive muscle relaxation twice a day keeps you from saying something that will make you feel much more vulnerable and freaked out, then it’s worth it. A tip for triggering stuff is to keep a few warhead-hot or hyper-sour lollies in your pocket – sucking one in moments of true overwhelm can help to stay anchored in your body by providing mind blowing sensory intensity – for example, while uncle Roger rants about Q Anon.
- Learning some BIFF and Broken Record tactics before Christmas lunch can be helpful if you know you’re going to get questions about why you’re not married, backhanded comments about your choice of partner, or have fat-shaming bullshit thrown at you. The essence of conflict skills is to have a format for a courteous but no-bullshit response pre-prepared, and to use that (sometimes over and over) instead of engaging in a fight no one will win.
- A final tip is that if you know that there are sensory things that make stressful situations easier then set yourself up for success by using them. Triggered by lots of noise? Get yourself some earplugs (those posh ones that look like jewellery might make a good ask for a gift?). Wear “shapewear” or binders if having that ‘swaddled’ feeling helps you regulate your mood and feel safer. Pack your best sunnies if being in bright light all day is going to be a problem or chuck a couple of fidget or stress toys in your pack if you know that you’ll be struggling to deal with a particular relative, and that having something to squeeze will help.
*Obviously there are more stressful environments than Christmas lunch, but the contrast of “why aren’t you having fun?” and personalised toxic comments merits special attention.
5 – There is booze at Christmas and if you’re partying with friends the day can become wild quickly. Take care of yourself.
Honestly, if you’re sensitive to getting your buttons pushed at this time of year this might not be the best time to drink or get high. There is nothing more likely to send you on a terrible trip or bad, bad binge than trying to repress pain, anger, or loneliness.
But realistically if you’re a drinker you’ll probably drink, if your mates are partying, you’ll probably get high. In those cases, give yourself the best chance of staying okay by taking care of yourself.
- Make sure you know where you’re staying, that the room is secure, and that you can get back there if you need to. Don’t rely on someone else to get you out of a party you no longer feel great about – do some pre-planning.
For example, it might be worth downloading Shebah (a ride share platform with female drivers) and setting it up for use pre-party, so you’re safer getting in a rideshare alone with a stranger while you’re intoxicated.
This ‘secure room and lift home’ tip goes for family parties as well: Having somewhere you can go and close the door is a huge relief when you’re drinking in an emotionally complex situation. Even if you love your family and get along with them, a lockable door or safe ride home can be a godsend.
- Eat food. Eat before you go out, and snack during the evening. Get protein, carbs, and veggie fibre in there.
Eating enough is going to make it much more likely that your mood will be steady if you’re drinking, and in high-stress situations a steady mood is a superpower. Also keep in mind that any comedown or hangover is going to be gentler if your basic physiological needs have been met beforehand.
- Drink water! Don’t just start when you start drinking! Hydration is your friend (you know this).
Carrying a few Heaps Normal’s, little sparkly Kombucha cans, or bottles of fancy water, and drinking them between alcoholic drinks can make a huge difference over the course of a day.
- Have a buddy, and buddy them back.
Looking out for someone else can be a powerful way to stay grounded and alert-enough to be safe while drinking or getting high. Also the increased chance that someone will wonder where you’ve gone, and turn up to stop you doing whatever it was you were about to do, might literally be a lifesaver.
- Buy a pill testing kit. Use it. No one wants to end up in emergency on Christmas night with an overdose of something unknown.
- If you’re going somewhere, let someone know.
6 – Unless you’re sure how it’s going to go down, this is not the time to have that big talk or drop that big news item.
If there’s something you need to share or clear up with loved ones, then do it one-on-one when expectations are lower and there isn’t a house-full of people to gossip about it.
7 – Set some expectations.
If mum regularly buys presents worth $300 for your kid and you don’t like it, address it before the big day. She might buy the present anyhow, but unless you tell her outright that you don’t like it, you’re setting both of you up for resentment.
- We sometimes think that the people who know us well should know what we want, but this is what’s known in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy as a cognitive distortion because we can’t actually read one another’s minds. If you’ve spent years dutifully saying a faux-thrilled “thank you!” for presents you hate, then how is the gift-giver to know you hate them? Fronting up and telling the truth isn’t easy, but keep in mind that letting people know what you want (or need) is doing them a kindness. No one wants to be the person who gives terrible gifts.
- Likewise, if you’ve made some choices about how you’re going to manage the time away from home and it’s different from what you usually do, then let people know beforehand. For example, if you’ve booked a hotel rather than planning to stay at your aunt’s like usual, then let her know that’s what’s happening so she has time to process the change before you show up. Trying to manage hurt feelings over a long day where everyone is drinking and there is a lifetime of interpersonal issues (in even the kindest of families) would make anyone crack.
8 – Honestly, a white lie is sometimes best.
- If you’re not staying with your brother because when you stay there you have flashbacks or awful anxiety, you don’t need to tell him that (unless that’s something you want to talk through well before the holidays). Telling someone you love that you’ve booked a hotel room because you’ve been having insomnia and don’t want to keep everyone awake, or because this is the only leave you’ll have all year, and you want to make it a bit of a posh vacation as well as seeing the people you love – that is fine.
- Pick something at least loosely related to your truth for the least stressful experience.
9 – Bring someone.
- Ever noticed how having a friend in the family home or bringing a partner along can make everyone behave better? It’s like if there’s a stranger in the room your family can’t relax into their natural, primal state of bickering.
- Keep in mind that if you do bring a friend or partner, you’re hosting. Make sure they have a safe space; don’t assume they will feel as comfortable as you do. Have a talk beforehand about whether they might have any worries, or what they find helpful if they do have a bit of a freakout.
- Again, we’re not mind readers, so if you’re the friend tagging along, let your host know what’s going to give you the best odds of feeling safe and at ease.
- If bringing someone isn’t possible, ask a mate if you can have a quick debrief during the holiday. Feeling the adult part of your personality return while chatting with a friend, even for a few minutes, can be helpful when you’re around people who are still talking to you like you’re a teenager.
10 – Alone for the holidays or feeling super blue about Christmas? You’re not the only one.
Christmas and New Year can be incredibly triggering and stressful, and honestly, they’re the worst time of the year for many people. If this is you, it can be useful to plan just enough. Not too intensely, partly because circumstances change, but also because sometimes planning and perfectionism can be a panic response – a desire for certainty and avoidance of pain that can ironically make it more difficult to tolerate distress.
Get out a bit of paper and have a brainstorm:
- Is there something you do that you find really engrossing and distracting in a healthy-enough way? Learning a new song on the guitar? Giving your garden a revamp or making a whole new garden bed? Saving a new game for the day of Christmas morning, so that the hours slip by while you figure out the landscape and rules? Saving up a big new novel from a writer you love? Painting, drawing, grooming the dog? It doesn’t matter what it is (really), if it makes the hours go by and you feel good about yourself while you’re doing it.
- Social spaces that are low stakes can help when isolation hits. I once spent a solo Christmas on the beach with a picnic lunch and a beach-read novel, and then went past a local bar that was showing Die Hard in the evening. A few “hellos” and smiles at strangers are surprisingly helpful when things are tough.
- Perhaps it would be a good day to tackle an experience you can do alone but would take some effort? A challenging (but safe!) hike, hiring a kayak and taking a long paddle, driving yourself somewhere beautiful for an overnight camp, or cooking a really elaborate dish that needs lots of pre-planning and a whole day of kitchen time? Anything that requires a bit of planning and that you can look forward to will work.
- Christmas day can be a great day to travel if you have to go a long way – the mood is relaxed and often friendly.
- Of course, loads of people don’t celebrate Christmas or Aussie New Year!! With a bit of research, you might find that there are events or businesses open that offer a bit of non-festive hospitality and happy distraction.
- And following that… some cinemas, swimming pools, galleries and restaurants are open on Christmas for at least a few hours, and it can be lovely to get out of the house if you’re feeling uncomfortable about the day. Parkrun events also sometimes run on Christmas, check out the handy link there to see if you can get a dose of endorphins into your Christmas (or New Year’s Day) morning.
- For those living with religious or spiritual trauma, or estranged from family, this is a time to be as gentle with yourself as humanly possible. Check in with your therapist before the break and come up with a plan together. It probably won’t make all the bad stuff go away, but it might help minimise stress
- Finally, there are info and help lines that are genuinely useful. It can feel strange to call a random number and say, “I’m having a rough day”, but getting some perspective and kindness from a stranger is a wonderful, wonderful thing. Scroll to the end for a selection of helplines and chat lines that are open on Christmas to help people navigate a big-feelings day.
Most of all, if Christmas is a trigger for you, try to find a way to have some kindness toward yourself. Let yourself off the hook – the rule that says you ‘should’ be enjoying the day or surrounded by people is part of the problem. If it’s a genuinely difficult day for you, then beating yourself up for not having fun or being the centre of a Christmas party is unlikely to make the day easier.
Above all, stay off social media.
In truth, the 24 hours will pass. In the meantime, treat yourself like you would treat a friend who was having a bad time – binge feel-good movies, eat nice snacks, get some sun on your skin, and make sure you’re doing the basics of self-care (because you, my friend, are the adult in your life). And if alcohol or other substances are likely to play a part, set yourself up to be safe (both emotionally and physically) with a plan for the day, so that you’re not just leaning on another drink to get you through.
Nobody writes an article about ‘surviving’ something that is universally loved. Christmas is a rough, weird and confronting time of year, and that is unlikely to change any time soon. The best we can do is to take care of ourselves, and if we can (in the words of Shanka Vedantam), someone else too.
Whether you’re looking forward to the holidays or dreading them, keep in mind that they will pass. Enjoy or tolerate the season but whichever you do, do it with a ton of self-compassion, with your coping skills firmly noted down somewhere you can reach them, with food in your belly and a bottle of water in your bag, and with a big dose of good wishes from me.
Resources and mental health resources
Read to the bottom for some excellent help lines that can make a difference if the day is a tough one for you.
Movies and episodes for a better version of the Festive Film Fest:
You might have to google around for these, as the streaming services seem to swap ownership of classics on a random basis. All are available here or there.
How the Ghosts Stole Christmas – A magnificent “Christmas” X-Files episode from the ‘monster stories’ side of the classic show.
Arrested Development: “Afternoon Delight” – You thought your family was bad.
The Happiest Season – “A young woman plans to propose to her girlfriend but discovers that she hasn’t yet come out to her conservative parents”. The Happiest Season is a surprisingly traditional and crowd-pleasing holiday rom-com in every sense except it’s politics. Funny, warm, and easy to like, with a stellar cast.
Tangerine – This is one for watching with friends or families that aren’t going to get freaked out by “alternative” cinema (your uptight cousin probably won’t enjoy it): “After hearing that her boyfriend/pimp cheated on her while she was in jail, a transgender sex worker and her best friend set out to find him and teach him and his new lover a lesson.” Tangerine has been described as an old-fashioned Christmas comedy a BIG, wild, Florida outfit. The film does have confronting scenes of violence, misogyny and references to sexual violence – the experiences of the women who are the heart of the film can’t be told without including this part of their story – so maybe skip this one if that’s likely to be an issue. Director Sean Baker went on to make the gorgeous “The Florida Project” and noted that he set Tangerine on Christmas Eve to highlight his character’s reliance on ‘chosen family’.
Die Hard – The other Christmas classic. Cheesy and thrilling enough to get even the most conservative family member through the day. Keep in mind it was released circa 1988 so all the casual bigotry and stereotyping of the era is included. If you squint it’s still charming.
It’s a Wonderful Life – This 1946 American film classic “stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his personal dreams in order to help others in his community, and whose thoughts of suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody” (Wikipeida). It’s a Wonderful Life is hammy and has all the rambling oddities of Hollywood films of the era (middle-aged Jimmy Stewart playing his teenage self in a weird dancefloor pool scene is a prime example), but if you’re looking for an authentic experience of seasonal joy, you really can’t go wrong.
Audiobooks and Podcasts for happy distraction:
David Sedaris – Holidays on Ice (audiobook) – Seasons Greetings to Mr Sedaris, who reminds us that no matter how difficult our Christmas is, at least we’re not department store elves.
Christmas and Commerce – This American Life Episode. Also wonderfully showcasing David Sedaris’s The Santaland Diaries, but full of other delights. One of their most popular ever episodes.
“Is Santa a God?” And “Night of the Krampus”– Stuff to Blow Your Mind (Podcast)- Rambling, affable and engaging, these episodes take ideas from science fiction, ghost stories and myth (both classic and urban) and explores them in a “science and philosophy” context. “Is Santa a God” is classic STBYM, while the Krampus episode will please anyone who likes a good spooky story.
Dark Histories Christmas Campfire episodes (podcast) – The history of spooky stories being told during European midwinter festivals goes back thousands of years, to a time when rituals of sacrifice at the winter solstice were a common way to guarantee that the sun would return again and the seasons continue their march toward warmth (and away from the spectre of famine). As late as Victorian England it was customary for people to gather around the Yule fire in the deep of winter and share spooky stories they had written. In fact, some of the classics of speculative literature came out of this storytelling tradition, including MR James’s “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” and Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”. Dark Histories has a gorgeous tradition of having listeners write in with spooky tales of their own for fun, warm and scary “Christmas Campfire” episodes. An added bonus is the sheer likeability of the show’s creator Ben Cutmore, who curates his storytelling with a keen eye for the hair-raising, and with a welcome distaste for misogyny and gore that makes Dark Histories a true gem in the true crime pantheon.
Mental Health Resources.
It isn’t just our own mental health that can add to our stress over the holiday season. If you’re with someone who isn’t doing so great, it can be helpful to call one of these lines together.
Blue Knot Foundation – 1300 657 380 – Free helpline and counselling for anyone who has experienced childhood trauma (of any kind), as well as for those who love them, and workers supporting them.
QLife – 1800 184 527 – LGBTQI+ peer support and referral service.
Suicide Callback Service – 1800 659 467 – Trusted service with good community feedback for when sitting on hold isn’t going to help matters.
Lifeline – 13 11 14 – For all manner of crisis and for referrals.
1800 RESPECT – 1800 737 732 – Service for anyone needing support around family violence or sexual assault, or who is supporting someone in this situation. Referral and counselling support.
Carer Gateway – 1800 422 737 – For those experiencing overwhelm around being a carer of any kind. If someone you love is a carer (or you are yourself), they can provide a wrap-around service including telephone support, and putting you in touch with respite, peer support, info about funding, and community organisations who can help share the load.
Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636 – Depression and anxiety support and referral.
Griefline – 1300 845745 – For anyone experiencing the pain of loss and grief, for any reason. Griefline often run a dedicated Christmas Day service in acknowledgement of how rough the day can be.
Men’s Line – 1800 657 180 – Telephone support including for parenting, family violence, mental health and relationships.