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Therapist Christmas can be tough - here's some strategies to help you mind yourself

Therapist Joe Heffernan has some tips for managing stress this holiday season.

WHILE CHRISTMAS IS perceived as a season of joy and happiness, many don’t realise that those feelings are not shared by everyone. Christmas time and the lead-up to it can bring its own challenges and feelings of anxiety.

We know from the latest general public online barometer survey – carried out by Behaviour & Attitudes on behalf of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy in July of this year – that two in three (66%) Irish adults said that they had felt stressed, often or sometimes, in the previous two weeks and that almost three in five (59%) said they had felt anxious.

Exacerbating influences can contribute to anxiety, for example, family tensions, bereavement, separation and divorce, financial pressures, isolation and loneliness.

Let’s consider how these can make the festive season a test of one’s resilience and what steps you can take to help ease the feelings of anxiety and stress.

Family tensions

If a person has not “got along” or is estranged from a family member, or members for 364 days of the year, that relationship is not likely to change on Christmas Day.

Individuals can be anxious about the season and might not be in that goodwill mode at all. In the case where there is a complete breakdown in the relationship between family members, this time of year can be particularly difficult and a cause of anxiety, anger or sadness.

Contributing to these feelings is the expectation of society in general that people should be happy and in a holiday mood at Christmas.

So – what to do? It often helps to have an exit strategy in mind when faced with a situation that makes you anxious. This can be anything from having ready-made excuses available to you if you need to step away.

For example, planning to say “my new year’s resolution is to get a good walk in every day”, or “I need a little lie-down”, can help to help you retreat to a private place to make a phone call to talk through your feelings with a trusted friend.


People who suffer from an addiction such as alcoholism sometimes feel pressure and resulting anxiety from the atmosphere of celebrations involving e.g. alcohol at Christmas.

People who are abstaining from alcohol can equally find that pressure is brought to bear over the festive season and one’s arm is twisted to, “Go on – have a drink for the season that’s in it”.

You can simply be assertive and say, “No thank you” or invent a little white lie like “I’m on antibiotics” to “I will be taking a drive later”. Again, one needs a plan. Think ahead – anticipate. That preparedness is half the battle.

Eating disorders

People with eating disorders can also be very anxious about the family gathering and the emphasis on food at Christmas.

Individuals can dread the Christmas dinner and expectations around food at this time, it can be the most anxiety-provoking season of the year.

Going for a long solo walk on the day can help to lessen the anxiety around these issues. Through planning and engaging with an organisation like or with a professionally accredited therapist, stress can be reduced.


An issue that can cause depression and anxiety at any time is bereavement. This can be exacerbated at Christmas, especially the first Christmas after the loss of a loved one.

How to commemorate and honour a loved one or loved ones who have died is a very individual process. One person might wish to visit the grave, another might not. One might wish to re-enact family Christmas traditions while another might find these traditions too difficult for them to engage with.

One of those grieving might wish to look at photos that remind them of the deceased. Another might not wish to engage with that. Both are right. But each person’s way needs to be respected. Judgemental attitudes need to be avoided. There is no, “right” way and no “wrong” way to deal with grief.

Separation and divorce

Another stress-inducing issue at Christmas is relationship breakdown and separation, especially when there are children involved. It is very helpful to have a “parenting plan” in place.

One needs to be pragmatic and flexible in agreeing to Christmas arrangements, for example agreeing that the children would be with their father on Christmas Eve one year and with their mother on Christmas Day and the following year that arrangement would be reversed.

Both parents should aim to agree not to compete with the presents they gave to the children and to be on time for the arrangements planned. Good planning can help to lessen stress and anxiety for all concerned.

Financial stress

Last but by no means least is the anxiety many families will be feeling this Christmas regarding finances. As we are all now well aware, the cost of living has reached heights that are unprecedented. The cost of the basic things in life like heat, light and food have seen startling increases.

Coupled with this, Christmas is a time of gift giving and many of us will be tempted to overspend if we don’t plan and budget. The amount we intend to spend on gifts and other expenses needs to be thought out and budgeted for.

Once again planning and forethought are our most helpful allies. We need to look at income and proposed outlay. It helps to make a list of those to whom we wish to give a Christmas gift. It needs to be remembered that a gift does not need to be expensive to be appreciated. It really is, “The thought that counts”.

Even in this age of the “cashless” society it can be helpful to pay cash where possible. The card can seem painless at the point of purchase, but the card bill can easily creep up and the day of reckoning does arrive. It is definitely not a good plan to borrow money for Christmas spending.

As the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS) wisely puts it – we “do not want the ghost of Christmas spending to haunt us in the New Year”.

Let’s hope the upcoming Christmas season brings a little peace to us all.

Joe Heffernan is a Cork-based counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (IACP) and the Irish Association of Alcohol and Addiction Counsellors (IAAAC) –


Need help? Support is available:
  • Samaritans – 116 123 or email
  • Pieta House – 1800 247 247 or email (suicide, self-harm)
  • Aware – 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Teen-Line Ireland – 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 18)
  • Childline – 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)
  • SpunOut – text SPUNOUT to 50808 or visit


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