It’s that time of year again. The festive party season is in full swing and we can’t wait to spend the holidays with our loved ones. We’re rushing around, buying gifts and planning our festive menu. We’re getting ready to celebrate with our families and friends and eat as though we’ve never counted a calorie in our lives. For some, December 25 is the most magical day of the year, but for others it’s a period of stress and strain that not only takes its toll on our mood, but also on our health. Given the increase in pressure in all areas of our lives, it’s hardly surprising that stress levels soar. Dubai-based counsellor Sharon Chapman, who is also a student counsellor at GEMS Wellington International School in Dubai, says Christmas can be a very trying time of year. “High expectations, money worries and family tensions can put a real strain on celebrations,” she says. “It can feel like a simmering pot just waiting to boil over.” But there is still enough time to ensure things don’t reach that point. Simply break down the main issues we face over Christmas and find a solution for each…
The problem: High expectations
High expectations are at the centre of our Christmas stress levels, according to Danielle Barbereau, a UK-based personal crisis coach (www.daniellebarbereau.co.uk). Danielle says we stir ourselves up into such a frenzy about Christmas that we expect miracles, and when real life doesn’t match up to our expectations, we feel let down. “Christmas starts earlier and earlier every year,” she points out. “We have almost two months to build up our expectations and spend money, in the hope that life is going to be perfect. But many people will be disappointed. Guests will behave like toddlers, hosts will spend five hours cooking in the kitchen, kids will want more and more and people will make themselves ill from gorging on food.”
Danielle says the secret of a happy festive time is all in the planning, which is best done as early as possible. “I advise people to work out what they want to do on Christmas Day, well ahead of the day itself,” she says. “Keeping it simple is key. You don’t have to cook a huge meal, and you don’t have to serve 25 vegetables to go with your roast. Keep reminding yourself it’s only one day and one meal.”
The problem: Financial strain
Christmas is an expensive period all over the world, but even more so in an expat, career-orientated society like the UAE, where we all believe we should treat our loved ones because we work so hard. “Buying presents, extra food, treats and getting ready for the big day can be stressful and we can be guilty of taking out our frustrations on those closest to us,” says counsellor Sharon Chapman. “Financial pressures can cause issues for people, and in one recent survey, 62 per cent of people said money worries were one of the biggest strains on family relationships. Add to this the extra pressure at Christmas, and it makes sense that the festivities don’t bring tidings of joy for everyone.”
The secret to avoid binge shopping in December is to plan your spending in advance, says Katy Hallside, financial expert at Mondial Dubai. “Ideally start in the summer and take advantage of all the offers and promotions throughout the year,” she says. “Also, keep an eye out for bargains with online retailers.” She stresses that setting a realistic festive budget and sticking to it is key. “Don’t be tempted to add to your debt. Put the credit card away and prioritise and organise your spending. Learn from last year’s mistakes.”
The problem: Indigestion
“It takes energy to digest your food so when you have a lot of calories to digest, you end up feeling sluggish because energy is being diverted,” says Dr Marilyn Glenville, nutritionist and author of Fat Around the Middle. “People often fall asleep after eating a large meal because their energy is needed in the digestive system. Indigestion or an upset stomach happens when your body struggles to break down food and digest it properly. It can be accompanied by nausea, bloating, flatulence, cramps, constipation and diarrhoea. Symptoms may last for a few days or more.”
“In most cases indigestion is not a serious health disorder, although it is a warning sign you’ve overdone it,” says Dr Grenville. “Chew your food slowly and thoroughly to give your body time to digest it properly and drink plenty of fluids, but not with your meal. Camomile tea has antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, properties.” Dr Atul Aundhekar, chief medical director at iCare Clinics, Dubai, believes in more drastic action. “Go on a liquid diet of fruit juice made from apples, oranges and bananas, which contain a lot of fibre to avoid putting a lot of stress on your digestive system,” he says. “And avoid oily, fried and baked food because they’re hard to digest.”
The problem: Weight gain
“Christmas must also include periods of downtime for people to relax,” says crisis coach Danielle. “It’s important that we pay special attention to maintaining a healthy lifestyle with balanced nutrition and exercise.” But for most, Christmas is about just the opposite, with a 16-hour eating frenzy and not much movement. Dr Glenville says we consume up to 6,000 calories on Christmas Day alone (women are recommended to have 2,000 per day and men 2,500). But there are ways to enjoy Christmas without gaining four kilos in a day!
Dr Aundhekar says enjoy food but in moderate quantities while maximising on quality. “You should opt for food made from natural ingredients – for instance, fruit cakes instead of creamy cakes laden with calories,” he says. Turkey is actually a good source of protein, B vitamins and, without the skin, it’s low in fat. If you opt for a stuffing, chestnuts are low in fat and a good source of potassium, which we need for healthy kidneys. Brussels sprouts are a good source of folate (a B vitamin) and vitamin C, which may help to protect against heart disease and cancer. “People tend to think the festive season means a break from routine and to stop exercising and eating healthy food,” he adds. “You shouldn’t give up on healthy things you do throughout the year because of celebrations.”
The problem: Loneliness or separation
Because Christmas is a time of happy families, it can also accentuate what’s wrong in our lives – whether that’s a feeling of loneliness or separation. “If you’re alone, Christmas can be excruciatingly lonely,” says counsellor Sharon. “Expats in Dubai find themselves hosting a winter holiday for family and friends so their schedules are usually crammed with things to do. Others who can’t get home for Christmas will rely on Skype to keep in touch with loved ones and they may feel they’re missing out on celebrations back home.”
“Create your own special day with food you wouldn’t normally have and a DVD you’ve been longing to see,” says crisis coach Danielle. “Maybe you could meet up with someone else who is also alone at Christmas.” Dr Aundhekar of iCare Clinics agrees it’s about recognising the fact that feeling lonely usually results from thinking about yourself. “If you focus on doing something for other people you won’t feel lonely,” he says. “Although you may be away from your family there are many social organisations and charities to get involved with. Doing something for others will help you feel good and take your mind away from focusing on your loneliness. You’ll still miss family but with new technology you can communicate and keep up to date with what is happening in their lives over Christmas.” Relate offers support to people living in Dubai: visit www.relate.org.uk.
The problem: Weakened immune system
As well as tummy upsets, the stress of Christmas can weaken our immune system, making us more susceptible to colds, flu and other infections – even in the sunny UAE. Heart problems and high blood pressure may be exacerbated over this time of the year because of high amounts of stress along with a high calorie intake. And for those people who are borderline diabetic it could cause someone to become type 2 diabetic if they are eating a lot of sweet foods over the holidays. “If you already have blood pressure problems, diabetes, heart problems, any period of stress or eating badly can exacerbate these issues,” says Dr Sohere Roked, author of The Tiredness Cure and a specialist in holistic medicine. www.holistic-doctor.co.uk.
“Moderation is key,” Dr Roked says. “Also try to have a good healthy breakfast, get at least a couple of early nights a week to help your body cope, and try to stick to your usual exercise routine.” Dr Aundhekar adds, “Many people in the UAE eat out a lot and they don’t know how their food has been prepared and if it contains all the necessary nutrients. Supplement your diet by taking a multi-vitamin to boost your immune system. Olives are good foods to snack on as they have anti-inflammatory benefits that help lessen the effects of allergies, flu and asthma.”