Article by Cat Rodie /
December 2019 /
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As soon as the mince pies begin appearing in the supermarket, Leanne, 49, starts to feel a niggle of anxiety take residence in the pit of her stomach. “It’s like this countdown of pressure and panic,” she says. “I always found the day overwhelming and exhausting – and the more children I had, the bigger it became,” adds Leanne, a busy primary school teacher and mother of seven. She is far from alone. Research commissioned by the Salvation Army from 2018 found that 7.6 million Australians say that Christmas is the most stressful time of the year. That’s around three in 10 people. For Leanne, it’s the build-up to 25 December and the pressure to make Christmas Day perfect that causes her stress levels to surge. However, there are numerous reasons that people struggle with their mental health during the festive season.
Dr Lauren Rosewarne is a social scientist at the University of Melbourne. She notes that Christmas is a marker of time. “For many people, the idea of time passing, another year having slipped through our fingers, potentially with goals not achieved that year, can prompt feelings of melancholy,” says Rosewarne. On top of this, since many families have their own Christmas traditions, any loss or bereavement that has taken place during the year can be felt more keenly at Christmas. “If you have lost someone – through death, from a broken relationship – having to go through the ritual in ways that differ from celebrations of previous years can prompt sad comparisons,” adds Rosewarne.
Another factor that can cause great stress at Christmastime is money. The Salvation Army research found that six million Australians feel obligated to spend more than they can afford at Christmas. Salvation Army officer Captain Brad McIver notes that the desire to buy presents and to be part of social occasions such as eating out can end up putting financial pressure on some families. “We find that rather than feeling like we are excluded, we tend to overstretch ourselves financially to be part of the celebration,” he says. “Often this can be by accessing lines of credit or even payday lenders to enable us to ‘enjoy’ some Christmas cheer, but unfortunately all too readily we’re left to try to pay off this financial burden in the new year.”
THE PERFECT CHRISTMAS
We all know what a perfect Christmas should look like – after all, advertisers have been selling us the perfect Christmas since the dawn of TV. But does the picture-perfect Christmas we see in the media have a negative impact on the way we experience the festive season? McIver believes it does.
“[Advertising] can give us an unrealistic expectation of what Christmas ‘should’ look like. The reality is that Christmas doesn’t look like that for any of us,” he says.
For those who are already struggling at Christmas time, the images of ideal family Christmases portrayed on TV can be really difficult. “These images of the perfect Christmas can lead people to feel like they are failing, less than, and highlight their isolation,” adds McIver.
Christmas movies can have a similar effect. Rosewarne notes that many of the Christmas movies we’ve grown up with present an idealised version of the season to audiences and flaunt events that are lavish, crowded and fun. “The fact that our own Christmases will often fail to measure up can create feelings of disappointment, if not envy,” she says.
So what can we do differently to take the pressure down a notch? Rosewarne’s number-one piece of advice is to lower your expectations: “Going into the season with modest expectations and allowing the season to unfold organically is much saner than putting excessive amounts of pressure on one day – one meal – to be the best thing you do all year.”
Leanne has adopted a similar approach. “I’ve stopped the pressure of trying to see everyone and we just spend the day at home with our tribe.
“Some may say this is selfish, but my life is crazy busy so taking the day off, eating good food and having a laugh with my babes is my idea of the perfect Christmas.”