Forget Santa, snowmen and Norwegian spruces; this month to many of us means spending money we might not necessarily have, enduring long hours of parties that are more chore than cheer, and dreading that moment when a child’s excitement all gets a little too much and turns to tears.
With presents to find, food to prepare and plans to organise, time seems to disappear; while family visits from other parts of the world – of course, always a pleasure – can be hugely energy-sapping. And that’s all while coping with a diet of rich food, late nights and reduced staff numbers at work.
Frankly, it’s enough to turn even the most organised person into a Scrooge. But does the festive period really need to be like this? Health experts and life coaches here in the UAE say absolutely not. They reckon, by following a few simple hints and tips, the winter’s hassles and exhaustion can be easily relieved – leaving us free to enjoy the season in the best spirits possible.
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And so, today, like a magazine version of Santa, Friday gives you the best of this advice, and wishes all our readers a very merry December.
1. Sometimes, say No
One piece of wisdom stands out above all others for Carmen Benton, founder of Mindful Ed, a personal development consultancy based in Al Sufouh, Dubai. ‘Ask yourself a simple question,’ she says. “Is it really necessary to go to every event and party I get invited to?” I think the answer is no. We go because we feel a duty. But we shouldn’t. This is a busy month and it’s OK to refuse some things, it’s OK to pull out of the excess. That doesn’t make you selfish.’
The benefits of the odd turn-down, she adds, are twofold.
By freeing up your diary with a couple of blank nights, it reduces the anxiety of feeling obligations are piling up on top of each other.
‘But, also, having that evening in will allow you to recharge, relax and recuperate – so you’re more ready to keep enjoying yourself again at the next event.’
2. Remember: it doesn’t need to be perfect
So often we dream of a perfect festive season. But it’s almost certain that’s not going to happen. Things just don’t run to plan.
‘From travel delays, to grumpy relatives, to failed baking, or people not loving their gifts as much as you expected, there is always stuff that doesn’t go perfectly and is beyond your control,’ says clinical psychologist Dr Alice Boyes, author of the bestselling The Anxiety Toolkit.
The solution? Simple, she reckons. Don’t get frustrated or disappointed at minor difficulties. Instead, accept events as they happen and make a pact with yourself to thoroughly make the most of whichever mini triumphs and tragedies occur.
3. Do the dislike-ables early
Ghada Zakaria swears by a school of thought that is known as ‘eating the frog’. Which is nothing to do with a turkey substitute.
Rather, ‘frogs’ – a term coined by American business guru Brian Tracy – are the projects you don’t really enjoy tackling. They’re the ones you put off and continually put aside for another day. Such delaying, the theory runs, is unproductive and causes stress – because it means said project remains uncompleted and on your mind.
‘So we should eat the frog as early as possible,’ says Ghada, executive leadership coach with Authenticity Coaching and Consultancy in Al Barsha, Dubai.
‘If we commit to getting this unpleasant job done, that means it’s not overshadowing everything else. It’s positive, affirmative action.’
In this case, that might mean doing a big food shop sooner than normal, buying and wrapping presents at the start of December, or perhaps organising the guest room a couple of weeks in advance of relatives arriving. Because once these must-do tasks are completed, we don’t have to think about them again – ‘and that,’ says Ghada, ‘is a huge stress-reducer’.
4. Have a timetable
Days of celebration are about fun and frivolity, for sure. No one wants to be stuck to rigid planning or be dictated to by a clock.
That said, when you’re cooking dinners, entertaining visitors, opening presents and keeping kids entertained, a little organisation goes an awful long way.
So, says Carmen, consider a timetable.
‘I would even go as far as physically writing it down and sticking it on the fridge for everyone to see,’ she explains.
‘So, 11.30am, put the turkey in; 2pm, set up a game in the garden. It might sound overly efficient – and, of course, you need to be flexible – but having that rough idea of when things need to be happening in advance means that’s one less thing you have to devote thought to on the day itself. And the less you have to think when things are getting manic, the easier it will be to enjoy everything else.’
Along similar lines: delegate tasks. This is a time for everyone to enjoy, and everyone should help out in that. You don’t need to feel bad about ordering the youngest to peel some potatoes.
5. Keep exercising – even when time is limited
So many of us are guilty of it, it’s almost become a cliche: as December speeds up and more commitments are made, we tend to push ideas of health on to the back burner.
Trips to the gym are reduced, team sports are cancelled until January, and even a simple walk round the neighbourhood becomes an extra chore or a non-priority.
Yet, if the motivation behind temporarily reducing our physical activity is to lessen stress by freeing up time, then, ironically, it may be having the exact opposite effect.
That’s because regular exercise is one of the best ways of combating anxiety. How so? Because, as studies show, such activity boosts the body’s production of endorphins, the feel-good neurotransmitters vital in modulating our mood and keeping us feeling positive. In short: after the turkey, forget the snooze and consider going for a brisk walk.
6. Eat right
There’s a certain irony that the ‘stress-tive’ season comes not just with a packed timetable and financial outlay – which both seem designed to cause anxiety – but a diet, too.
Traditional foods associated with December – rich meats, sweets, cheese treats and caffeine-rich drinks – are exactly the kind of high-sugar, high-salt and high-fat edibles that increase blood pressure, raise cholesterol and exacerbate lethargy. Add to that the fact we tend to eat in larger quantities and at unusual times, and it’s clearly not good news.
‘No one is saying you shouldn’t treat yourself,’ says Christopher James Clark, the Dubai-based nutritionist who wrote the award-winning book Nutritional Grail.
‘But it’s worth still being aware of what you’re eating, and trying to modify a little.’ He recommends building superfood stops into your festive schedule – a banana after breakfast, for instance, or nuts as a mid-afternoon snack – as these maximise energy; while also including plenty of blood pressure-lowering greens with traditional meals. Saying no to those after-dinner coffees will also help sleep.
There’s some good news, though: the traditional turkey is packed with protein – vital in producing our happy hormone dopamine – so feel free to really tuck in.
7. Make the most of the UAE
It’s a familiar tale: you fill the kids’ days with parties and treats, and their stockings with presents – and they still eventually potter up to you before school starts again and declare: ‘We’re bored’.
What’s worse is when visiting relatives start to hint the same thing, too. No wonder this is the stress-tive season! But hang on. You live in the UAE. The weather is perfect, and there are a million and one ways to keep the young (and not-so-young) entertained. So why not take advantage of them?
‘I’ve been here seven years now,’ says Emily Jardine, a mother of one and freelance journalist in Dubai Marina, who has written on the subject. ‘And I honestly think it’s the best place in the world at this time of year. The beaches are just right; you have lovely places like City Walk basking in sunshine; there’s Global Village, and there are all the winter festivals.
‘If anyone gets restless, all of those make a lovely afternoon out. And you don’t need to wrap up in coats, hats and scarves either.’
8. Remember: it will all be over soon
Which sounds a little Grinch-like. But, actually, says Carmen, it’s very much a positive affirmation.
‘The thing about this time of year is you look forward to it and plan for it, and then it can all be over in the blink of an eye,’ she explains. ‘So, when you do feel yourself getting hot and bothered and stressed, just take a moment to remember why it’s supposed to be special.’
Find a quiet space; remind yourself that this should be a happy experience; and be thankful for everything you have. ‘I had a friend who says how she always worried because they had four children and it was so busy and there was too much going on,’ says Carmen.
‘Well, those children grew up, and they left Dubai, and they don’t come back at the same time anymore.
‘She said to me, “It’s only looking back I realise how much I enjoyed those days and I should have made more of them.”’
Whatever your situation may be, don’t be that person regretting what’s gone. Absolutely make the most of it all, today.