The Christmas season is “meant” to be filled with happiness, but for you maybe it is a time of unspeakable stress, anxiety, or loneliness. Christmas arrives with high expectations of perfect, happy families enjoying luxurious celebrations and gifts.  It is very hard for any of us to avoid this fantasy and the hype that goes with it. What’s more…. it is socially unacceptable to be a grinch during the festive season. Read on for the science and the secret that will help you most.

If you secretly dread this time of year, know that you are not alone! Maybe you have recently lost someone you love, and so Christmas brings acute feelings of grief and sadness. Or perhaps you experience feelings of isolation, financial pressures or increased family conflict that can make this a very stressful time of year.

However, the best kept secret to help you manage stress during the festive period turns out to be YOU and how you MANAGE what you say and feel inside yourself about it all.

It is not the situation you are in that determines how you feel,

but the thoughts, meanings, and interpretations you bring to that situation.

Perhaps you’ve heard this one? ” OMG It’s December and I’ve hardly achieved anything this year. I need to get my life sorted!”

Or …. ” I promised I’d start shopping early this year and yet again I’ve done nothing…I’m hopeless”

Or maybe this one …” Soo much pressure at work  and I am way behind….I’ve been so slow”

 So what is the real problem here?

We all get triggered into being judgy about how we are managing the Christmas rush. So what is the real problem here? You are not going to be able to ignore Christmas totally forever are you? The best kept secret is learning how to deal with the stress on the inside of you.

The problem : Is your inner critic, is trying to motivate you with a harsh criticism.

The additional problem is : This self criticism impacts on your mental and physical health.

The science: Emotional attacks increase your cortisol levels while a handy little thing called “self compassion” reduces it.

The solution: Learn how to calm and comfort your self when stressed. Easier said than done huh?

What is the science that will help you?

For the past decade Dr Kristin Neff has been conducting research on self-compassion, and has found that when you are compassionate to yourself you are much less likely to get depressed, anxious, and stressed.  In short, you stand to have better mental health.

The power of self-compassion is not just an idea – it’s very real and actually activates chemicals in your body. When you help yourself with your own pain you are tapping into the mammalian care-giving system.  Importantly the way the care-giving system works is by triggering the release of oxytocin. Research indicates that increased levels of oxytocin strongly increase feelings of trust, calmness, safety, and connectedness and facilitates the ability to feel warmth and compassion for yourself.  Oxytocin is released when a mother breastfeeds her child, when parents interact with their young children, or when someone gives or receives a soft, tender hug. The thinking goes that thoughts and emotions have the same effect on your body whether they’re directed to you or to others.

How to soften the inner critic graciously

Self-criticism appears to have a very different effect on your body. The amygdala is the oldest part of the brain, and is designed to quickly detect threats in the environment. When you experience a threatening situation, the fight-or-flight response is triggered: The amygdala sends signals that increases blood pressure, adrenaline, and the hormone cortisol, mobilizing the strength and energy needed to confront or avoid a threat. Hence you are wired and fired up, not calm and relaxed.

Recent research indicates that generating feelings of self-compassion actually decreases your cortisol levels. In one study conducted by Helen Rockliff and her colleagues, researchers asked participants to imagine receiving compassion and feeling it in their bodies. Every minute they were told things like “Allow yourself to feel that you are the recipient of great compassion; allow yourself to feel the loving- kindness that is there for you.” It was found that the participants given these instructions had lower cortisol levels after the imagery than those in the control group. Participants also demonstrated increased heart rate variability afterwards. So you could say that by giving themselves compassion, participants’ hearts actually opened and became less defensive.

How can you start to make changes simply?

An effective aspect of self-compassion practice, therefore, is to tap into our body’s self-healing system through physical sensations.

This means that an easy way to calm and comfort yourself when you’re feeling badly is through soothing touch. It seems a bit silly or weird at first, but your body doesn’t know that it is just you reasurring you. It just responds to the physical gesture of warmth and care, just as a baby responds to being held in its mother’s arms. Remember, physical touch releases oxytocin, reduces cortisol and calms your cardiovascular stress.

So why not try it?

If you notice that you’re feeling stressed, upset, or self-critical, try giving yourself a warm hug, or tenderly stroking your arm or face, or gently rocking your body. What have you got to lose? What’s important is that you make a clear gesture that conveys feelings of love, care, and tenderness. If other people are around, you can often fold your arms in a non-obvious way, gently squeezing yourself in a comforting manner. Notice how your body feels after receiving the hug or caress. Does it feel warmer, softer, calmer? It’s amazing how easy it is to tap into the mammalian caregiving system and change your bio-chemical experience. There are lots of way you can start to build a new neuronal goat track in the brain of yours that is operating on an automatic stressed out neuronal super highway. Everytime you try little stuff  like even saying the words self compassion when you are having a hard time, this can help start the brain re-wiring and developing a self compassion goat track. Small steps are the best ones when we are trying to change. Keep checking back here for other great ideas on building self compassion to follow in the coming months. But in the meantime…be brave and let yourself do the weird or silly stuff.  Afterall your body does not know if it is YOU soothing YOU or you getting a hug from someone else. Give it what it needs to calm your cariovascular ssystem and beat the Christmas stress better this year!


It is not the situation you are in that determines how you feel,

but the thoughts, meanings, and interpretations you bring to that situation.