Christmas lowers emotional well-being and science proves it

by Marc Wilson / 19 December, 2018
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Deadlines, bills and Christmas have replaced savage beasts as our main sources of stress, says psychology professor Marc Wilson.

Tis the season to be jolly stressed, falalala, etc. ’Tis not just me that thinks this. Based on an analysis of large-scale surveys conducted in Europe, professor Michael Mutz, formerly of the University of Göttingen in Germany, has confirmed that emotional well-being and life satisfaction decline around Christmas (unless you’re strongly Christian, in which case you truck on through with nary a dip – or spike – in life satisfaction).

Mutz argues this dip reflects the Christmas-related pressures on time, social obligations and money, on top of the pressures we deal with all the time. In Germany, Mutz notes, more than a quarter of all Christmas gifts are purchased in the two weeks leading up to the big day. So, if you’ve got a big family …

Feeling stressed is the experience we have when our ability to cope is exceeded by the things we have to cope with. You know what it feels like – heart racing, gurgling tummy, hypervigilance, among other things.

Our stress reaction has a purpose – it kept (some of) us alive when wild beasts tried to eat us, or rival tribes came for our food stores. When such threats appear, our brains respond by releasing stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, causing a series of knock-on effects that equip us to flee or fight. Energy is diverted from the digestive system to the heart and lungs to pump blood to where it’s needed, the immune system goes into overdrive, and the brain’s decision-making centres are pushed out of the driver’s seat, so we don’t waste time with thoughts like “dodge left or dodge right” lest we be gulped up in our indecision.

Once the threat is behind us, or clubbed to death, a complementary mechanism comes into play that dampens down this firestorm of fight/flight preparation. Your digestion comes back on line, heart rate slows and the floodgates that had shut down blood flow to your reproductive parts open up (nookie is not a priority when you might be about to die).

Michael Mutz.

Most of us don’t have to contend with the life-threatening challenges from deep in our evolutionary past. What we experience as stress reflects activation of the stress response by contemporary predators – deadlines, bills, arguments and suchlike. Unfortunately, these may not be as easy to club to death, and they keep coming. What can happen after periods of ongoing stress is that when the pressure comes off, your parasympathetic nervous system overcompensates and shuts down your stress response too much, including your immune system. Post-stress cold time.

So, hopefully you’ve already bought your Christmas prezzies, because that’s one way to relieve the pressure. Try to plan ahead – tricky because you still have to do everything else.

One of the things people worry about for the holiday season is living up to the rather unreasonable expectations that we’ve internalised from romantic movies, popular media and our own desire to make it a special time. My advice is to have a cold, hard look at what you think a good Christmas is and, if it looks a lot like that Hallmark picture, re-evaluate. Aim for good, not perfect.

And remember that stress handbrake on decision-making? Beware of snap decisions when you’re feeling overwhelmed, because your brain is otherwise occupied. Make use of your social supports – do you really need that fur-lined cycle helmet? No gift purchaser is an island, so spread the load.

On the subject of presents, remember that this year’s must-have is next year’s office Christmas regift, then it’s out of your memory. Without putting pressure on yourself to come up with the perfect gift, give some thought to gifting experiences rather than things. Memories can be savoured long after smartphone manufacturers have slowed down your operating system to avoid overtaxing your obsolete battery.

Here endeth my sermon for the holiday season. Enjoy your family and friends.

This article was first published in the December 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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