It often takes a courageous leap of faith to approach the enormity that Christmas has now evolved into. In that whirlwind spin up to December 25th our bodies are overtaxed and overexcited, pumping out increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol.

While this may appear harmless enough, it is within this heightened state our body’s sympathetic nervous system is thrust into activation. When this happens, there are lots of things beyond our control kicking into gear. The body is on autopilot.

So what does happen? when the sympathetic nervous system gets triggered? Firstly it releases lots and lots and lots of hormones. These are the catecholamines from the adrenal glands and include adrenaline and noradrenaline. Cortisol is also activated.

When we are stimulated in an isolated incident it can take 15 to 65 minutes for the body to resume its usual state. Can you imagine what might be happening in our bodies, if this state of distress and anxiety is constantly being triggered and prolonged for weeks, or even months, as might be the case in the build-up to Christmas?

While stress and its hormones can help us deal with the difficulty of the rush and madness in the lead up to Christmas, it is the longevity of that bodily process that causes the real damage. This means we really do need to take care of ourselves post-Christmas.

Research shows that long term stressors do contribute to serious health issues such as high blood pressure (and at the extreme end, abnormal heart arrhythmia and often heart attack), anxiety, depression, mood swings, loss of sex drive, irritability, loss of memory and or concentration, exhaustion, reduction in immune function (i.e. catching a cold, flu or general ‘bugs’), increased use of alcohol, food, drugs, cigarettes, weight gain/loss… the list is endless.

Sadly, many people place this exacerbated behaviour into, ‘I’m mad, bad, crazy, wrong, stupid …’ category… again, an endless list.

However, with more attention to the observation of the self-state, the more likely one is to understand that these behaviours are a response to seriously heightened feelings about Christmas needs and expectations. If we can stay aware of the origins of these stress, we are better able to manage it.

I will share two stories about how Christmas reminds me of this difficult, troublesome time …

One friend shared with me her great desire to give her children the most wonderful Christmas experiences she could. Her endeavour usually began in August before Christmas. Planning, colour schemes, decorations, gifts, food… nothing was too much trouble. The children loved it. Excited as little people and still just as excited now at 19 and 21 years old. As my friend approached August this year, she felt a sense of foreboding, and exhaustion, a sort of Christmas burnout, before Christmas had even begun showing up in the stores. On closer investigation, she realized she no longer enjoyed the four-month manic prelude to prepare for a spectacular Christmas event. Breaking this news to her children she realized the magnitude of the expectations she had created within them. While she feared their disappointment, she also knew they needed to know it could not always be that way, and that in the beginning, she had never intended to continue doing the ‘fiasco’ style Christmas into their adult lives.

When she was finally able, to be honest with herself, and thereby her children, she felt happier, lighter, as if a load had been lifted from her life. Perhaps the children will still need to process their new Christmas experience, however, they plan to do that as family.

The second story comes from a random discussion with a complete stranger as we both waited at a service desk.

My complete stranger told me he feeling quite anxious (yes, I did say ‘complete stranger’, however clearly he needed a download and I was the only available ear at that moment). I knew where this was going, I know this turf. I know the tone, I know the facial expressions, I know the sadness. I know when someone needs to download. Sometimes in my own porous, vulnerable moments, I will flee the scene, throwing a platitude into the space between that person and myself, as I escape. This day I had no desire to flee, and so listened intently.

It went a bit like this…

CS (Complete Stanger): ‘I can feel my anxiety building… it happens every year at this time’.

I nod knowingly, with an empathic expression, and as if my demeanour was an invitation he launched into the narrative.

CS ‘I feel like the world is empty, hollow at Christmas. As if no one really cares about anything much except their immediate needs. I’m sure many do feel more, but I can’t feel it from them. I know my own family doesn’t really want to see me. They put up with me. It breaks my heart, but I pretend it’s all okay. So when they say, ‘I guess you will be wanting to go soon, we’ll run you up the train’, I just say ‘yes’. But really, to be honest, I could sit there all day just watching the grandkids play, and yell and squeal. It’s the only time I get to see them, sort of my yearly gift from my son and daughter in law. I know I did something wrong … but I have no idea what it was …’.

He stops for a moment. I venture in.

Me: ‘Have you ever asked what that might be?’

CS: Oh yes. Took me years to summon the courage to ask that question. They say ‘nothing’. I wasn’t much of a father. I was in the forces and was away a lot. I felt like my role was important to my country, but what it… what I did … to my family…! Well, it was like I had thrown a hand grenade into my own family and splintered every piece of connection we might have had. But darn I loved those kids. I guess they don’t think I did … or that I do.

I have no idea how to recover from that… (he trails off) … (then adds), ‘so I just take whatever crumb I can get to be with them and near them all’.

I am lost for words but offer some inane response.

Me: Perhaps they don’t have the words to express how they feel, or what is going on for them… however, your experience sounds very, very painful.

He leans in and says, ‘so painful… I couldn’t tell you… ‘.

He never finishes that sentence, his number is up, he is called to the counter.

I am left feeling inadequate, wanting to dialogue more with his pain… though I can’t.

It’s a time for us to be thinking about our own place in the post-Christmas spirit, however, is it also a time for us to be thinking about those around us who are sad, lonely, alone. Together let’s keep an eye out to help anyone we notice that might need help … while taking care of our emotional needs as well.