BILL MERRINGTON gives us tips on surviving the Christmas period

HELP! Advent has arrived, which means there is only four weeks to Christmas. Yes I know, it should be an exciting enjoyable time but for many it just means more stress and debt on top of an already busy, exhausted life.

Whether we like it or not its going to happen, so over the next four weeks we will look at ways of staying healthy and chilled so that we might actually enjoy it.

The first thing to acknowledge is that although Advent and Christmas is a hopeful theme; those who survive it best are realistic.

Preparing for Christmas can cause anxiety for lots of reasons. There is the financial constraint, then there is the family with all their expectations and finally there is the fear of yearly arguments.

So sit down with a piece of paper and write out what you really want to achieve and avoid this Christmas. Begin with what you want for yourself. Otherwise you will resent all the effort you put into it for others, knowing your preferences are being ignored.

It may be a day to yourself, getting out for some fresh air or going to a show you love.

Book it now and ring fence it. If you care for yourself today, you will be better equipped to care for others tomorrow.

Secondly, sit down with who ever you live with and collectively discuss what everyone is expecting. So often we bumble into family problems that could have been avoided. Clearing the air allows each person to have his or her preferences heard. It is inevitable that compromises are necessary. It can help to have an initial discussion and then have a cooling off period to allow individuals to reflect and reconsider their position. People tend to be more flexible after a period of re-consideration.

Try to set a budget that you can afford. This has to be realistic and affordable. Try not to put yourself in so much debt so that January doesn’t become yet another month you dread. Remember the budget not only needs to include presents, but food and activities. This means that it is ok to say ‘no.’ The more assertive you can be now will prevent greater problems later.

‘No’, might include not doing a crazy long journey on Christmas Day to please relatives. Perhaps it’s explaining to children why they can’t have the expensive toy (we’ll think about children next week). ‘No,’ seems such a difficult word to say for some of us, but if we explain the reason behind the decision, it usually pacifies people and if it doesn’t, then it’s really their problem and not yours. If they really care for you, then they will understand.

Part of fixing the budget is recognizing your temptations and finding a way of controlling them. It’s just so easy today to sit at home and do your shopping at the computer. This is fine provided you can resist the urge to keep pressing the buy button. Try walking away from the computer and delaying any purchase for at least 24 hours. The ‘deals’ will stay be there, but you might just decide it’s a step too far to buy this year.

The next big decision is to deal with the ghosts of the past. Christmas gatherings tend to have reoccurring issues and problems. People tend to be slow to change, so the problems of previous Christmases just might pop up once again this year. Unfortunately people also find it hard to forgive and forget, so there can be a tendency for old arguments to re-emerge. However if you can identify the pressure points, you can then attempt to avoid contentious issues. For some it might be to clear the air now and mutually agree some ground rules for Christmas, perhaps agreeing that some issues will not be discussed over the festive period. What you can’t do is to control other people, but you can control yourself. Set your own boundaries and agree with yourself what you will and wont accept.

If you are staying away from home, unfortunately this might mean walking away from issues and returning home. This is costly to everyone but it can prevent things escalating to a dangerous level. Being honourable to yourself is less stressful than enduring a bullying violent situation.

Finally, begin your preparation as soon as possible. A useful tip is not to take on things you have not done before. Keep to cooking food you are confident in rather than putting pressure on yourself and experimenting with your cooking. If you cook double the amount of food now and place half in the freezer, you will have plenty in, to make part of the festive period less stressful and allowing you to put your feet up. And do remember to enjoy the next four weeks for after all Christmas is just one day.

Bill Merrington is a therapist, bereavement specialist and book writer on loss issues (