Christmas is supposed to be a time of celebration. It’s meant to be about fun, spending time with family and friends, and relaxing.
But for many people it is a season to endure, a time when we put enormous pressure on ourselves. My patients often talk to me about needing to ‘just get through Christmas’. What a shame that is.
We often look back on the Christmases we had as children with nostalgia for the sheer excitement of it all. Why, when we’re adults, must it be different? The easiest way to enjoy Christmas is to enter into it with a clear, uncluttered mind, and let go of any expectations of perfection.
So this week, as we embark on the big build-up, I have created an advent calendar for you, with a simple trick to try each day. It’s a combination of meditation and mindfulness, gratitude therapy and self-care.
Pick what you find useful: none of these should take more than ten minutes a day.
Dr Max Pemberton has created an advent calendar for mindfulness, gratitude therapy and self-care as you countdown to Christmas (file image)
It’s easy to fly into a panic as the calendar clicks over from November 30. This year, aim to start the season in a calm, relaxed way.
Find a quiet room and set an alarm for three minutes. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath in, hold for three seconds and breathe out while counting to three. Focus on your breathing and allow your mind to empty.
If thoughts start to crowd in, just refocus on your breathing. Concentrate on how each breath feels and the rise and fall of your chest. If worries float into your mind, let them float back out again.
TRY OUT THE RAISIN EXERCISE
If you’re new to mindfulness, this is a great exercise to start you off. It will only take three minutes or so.
Take a raisin and imagine you’ve never seen one before. Hold it between your fingers and notice how it looks and feels. Squeeze it. Roll it. Smell it. Pop it in your mouth but don’t chew it at first — notice the taste and texture.
The idea is to get you focusing on one thing. When practised regularly, this should help you direct your attention better and push out any feelings of anxiety.
BOOK A PANTO
The pandemic has badly affected our theatres, and many of them are banking on panto season to reinvigorate their fortunes. So book one to bring the family together and support the arts, too.
There is nothing quite like a panto. It’s entertainment for all the family, introduces children to key ideas about morality, and is also a wonderful tradition steeped in folklore since the Middle Ages.
COMMIT TO FOUR DRINK PASSES
It’s the first Saturday of December — and the first ‘party night’. We often closely associate Christmas with drinking to excess, but alcohol disrupts sleep, increases long-term anxiety and interferes with our thoughts and memories.
Try limiting your drinking this Christmas. Plan your parties and give yourself four ‘passes’ when you allow yourself a drink, but the rest of the time, abstain. See the difference it has on how you experience and appreciate get-togethers.
MAKE YOUR CARDS COUNT
Dr Max recommends finding two minutes today to book a haircut, manicure or massage for the days before the holiday (file image)
How many of us have people on our Christmas card list we never find time to see? Spend Sunday afternoon going through it and pick five people you really want to reconnect with.
Don’t just sign their card. Close your eyes, think about them and remember why they are special to you, then write a few heartfelt sentences. Suggest meeting up in the new year — and write a reminder to yourself to contact them again and suggest a date to meet.
BAN BEDTIME PHONE USE
There’s so much to get done before the holiday, and the stress can lead to sleepless nights.
So practise good sleep hygiene now. Ban your smartphone from the bedroom and don’t look at it for 20 minutes before bed.
Charge it in the kitchen and use a clock to set yourself an alarm for the morning.
SCHEDULE SOME ME TIME
Set aside space in the calendar for some me time later in the month.
Find two minutes today to book a haircut, manicure or massage for the days before the holiday. Don’t invite anyone else — this isn’t about sharing an experience, it’s about you getting a chance to be pampered in a busy time.
TAKE A BATH FOR TEN MINUTES
Dr Max said run yourself a warm bath with luxury bath salts while you’re getting ready for bed (file image)
While you’re getting ready for bed, run yourself a warm bath.
Choose some luxury bubble bath or bath salts to add to the water, then slip in and lie there for ten minutes, breathing in deeply.
Notice how the water feels around your body. Focus on the warmth of your skin.
Set an alarm to make sure you don’t fall asleep in the bath (there’s nothing relaxing about waking up at 3am in cold water with skin like a prune), then get out, dry yourself and go straight to bed.
DO ONE ACT OF KINDNESS
Today, perform one random act of kindness, preferably for someone you don’t know. Buy a homeless person something to eat, offer to get someone’s shopping or make tea for a colleague.
The idea is to become aware of other people and mindful of the small struggles they face.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the incredible power of small acts of kindness. If everyone continued this, imagine how much better the world would be.
PERFORM A BODY SCAN
Another popular mindfulness exercise is the body scan. Set an alarm for ten minutes. Now, lie on a bed with your arms beside you, or sit in a chair with your hands on your lap. Close your eyes.
Notice your breathing. Next, bring your attention to your feet, noting exactly how they feel. Then move your focus up the body to your lower legs, thighs, stomach and so on.
Don’t spend all day in the shops — find a carol service to attend. And when you go, sing along and don’t worry if you’re out of tune. No one really cares.
Children don’t care if they’re in tune or not, or even if they know the words. Lose yourself in the songs. Carols are a great way of connecting with our past, and with those dear to us who are no longer with us. Sing a song for them and rejoice in their memory.
Rather than buying decorations, make your own. The idea of ‘craftfulness’ draws on positive psychology, neuroscience and our inherent desire to create things in a technique that relaxes, clears and heals the mind.
The key is that it’s active and involves focusing on a task. Make some salt-dough tree decorations or even some simple paper chains, and set your attention fully on the task in hand, rather than the pressure and stresses around you.
GO ON A NEW WALK
Dr Max said go on a brisk walk, even if it’s just a different way home – try to appreciate what is around you and take in the new sights (file image)
Go on a brisk winter walk. Wrap up warmly and try to pick a route that you haven’t been on before and wouldn’t normally follow.
If you’re working from home, set out early before your day starts. If you’re in the office, nip out during your break. Look around at the scenery — even if it’s just a different way home, try to appreciate what is around you and take in the new sights.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed in the last two weeks before Christmas, get an adult Christmas colouring book. Rather than watching TV after work, indulge in the soothing, regressive activity of colouring in. It reminds us of our childhood, when things were simpler and we had less stress and fewer worries.
But it’s also what I term ‘purposeful mindlessness’ — an activity that gives you mental space to take yourself out of the moment and clear your mind. It’s amazing how calming it is.
BOOST FEEL-GOOD HORMONES
Give yourself a dose of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone, by engaging in nurturing touch.
Mark the end of the working week with a hand massage. Spend three minutes carefully rubbing in some nice hand cream.
Start at the base of the palm, working your way up to the fingertips on one hand, then start again with the other hand.
TEST OUT MINDFUL SEEING
Hitting peak busy? Those who struggle with mindfulness exercises sometimes find ‘mindful seeing’ useful instead.
All you need is a window with a view. Look at all there is to be seen. Avoid labelling things. Rather than seeing a road sign, for example, look at the shape and colours. Note the movement of greenery and how light changes.
BAKE FOR OTHERS
Dr Max said be aware of the smells and textures while baking Christmas biscuits to give to friends and family (file image)
Tonight, why not stay at home, get cosy and bake some Christmas biscuits to give to friends and family? While you’re doing it, be aware of the smells and textures, and the noises and sensations you experience. Don’t rush it.
Then, take a few for your family and pop the rest in a tin. You could take them into work, bring them round to a neighbour or even post them to friends.
TAKE THE SHOPS IN YOUR STRIDE
This is the last shopping Saturday before Christmas, so make a list of absolutely everything you have to get.
While you’re queuing in the shops, you can practise the ‘Five Senses’ exercise.
First, notice five small things you can see — a shadow, a crack in the pavement. Next, it’s four things you can feel — a breeze on your face, perhaps. Then, three things you can hear — pick noises you would normally filter out. Follow this with two things you can smell. And, finally, focus on one thing you can taste — try sucking a mint.
CHEER UP SOMEONE’S SUNDAY
Sundays are often difficult for people, especially in winter when it gets dark so early. Look through your address book and find one person you think might be on their own this evening.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak to them regularly — it’s Christmas, so you have the perfect excuse to call someone out of the blue.
You may think you’re too busy, but spend a short time on a chat and you’ll find this kind of positivity will reflect back on how you feel, too.
GIVE FESTIVE FLOWERS
Dr max said if you’re stuck for a last-minute present, send flowers or a plant like a poinsettia (pictured)
Right, this is it. You’re on the home straight. Forgotten someone on your list? If you’re stuck for a last-minute present, send flowers or a plant like a poinsettia. They are sure to lift the mood of someone you love.
My favourites are Christmas narcissi, as they will fill the house with a lovely smell and remind the recipient of you during the whole Christmas period.
IT’S ALMOST A WRAP
Still working? Say no to any out-of-hours socialising and block out the evening to do all your wrapping now.
Put on some Christmas songs and make an active decision to enjoy yourself. Clear a space, line up all the presents and imagine the delight of loved ones when they open them.
PREPARE TO SAY THANKS
Make sure you have plenty of thank-you cards and a small pad to jot down what people give you for Christmas. Countless studies have shown a robust association between high levels of gratitude and long-term mental wellbeing.
Writing thank-you letters has also been shown to improve heart health in people with heart failure, and reduce the pain experienced by people with cancer. Putting pen to paper — as outdated as it sounds — has been shown to be superior to a text or email. It takes longer and requires more thought, which makes the person focus on the positive as they write.
ESCAPE IN A XMAS BOOK
Yes, we all love a Christmas movie. But what about making a new tradition of reading a Christmas book?
Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the quintessential festive story, or some other Yuletide-themed tale, is a perennial joy. Fiction lets us escape our cares in a safe way. If you feel inspired, you could even write a story. No one else needs to see it.
HOLD ON TO MEMORIES
The night before Christmas, take ten minutes to make yourself a hot drink you might not normally try — a spicy hot chocolate, perhaps — that will stimulate your tastebuds.
While you’re having your drink, sit alone and think of your happiest Christmas memories. What makes them so special?
Try to think about the core elements of these memories: the excitement, the relaxation or the warmth of being with loved ones. Hold on to these feelings and carry them through into Christmas.