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Glade Jul, by Viggo Johansen (1891).

One of the most well-known non-religious paintings of Christmas is Glade Jul (or Merry Christmas) by the late 19th century Danish painter, Viggo Johansen. It portrays a maternal figure with variously-sized children, all holding hands in a circle and dancing around a beautiful and magically-lit Christmas tree. The children appear happy and the faces we can see most clearly look almost angelic. The mother figure has her back to the viewer, which obscures her identity as anything other than the mother of the children and allows the viewer to project their own ideas of maternal perfection onto her form.

Johansen’s painting is beautiful and has, unsurprisingly, been reproduced numerous times on Christmas cards, calendars, and other commercial products. For many, it represents an ideal image of what Christmas looks like, but is also removed from the reality that many of us experience. 

We know that, for many people, Christmas is a stressful time. More people live on their own in the UK than ever before and it’s estimated that 1 in 10 will spend Christmas alone this year. For those in difficult or unpredictable relationships, or for those who have strained family ties and obligations, the festive season can be a period that simply has to be ‘got through.’ And even if you are someone who loves Christmas and feels fortunate in your family and friends, the build up of pressure to ‘perform’ over yuletide can raise anxiety levels significantly during what is the coldest and darkest time of the year. 

It is not unusual to feel more tired, less sociable and to see a change in your eating habits during this season; and we are now aware of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and the real impact that this darker period has on some. Historically, of course, this was a time when food could not be grown, and so to keep warm and make what was left of the food last until the following year was a normal course of events. We would sleep more, travel around less, and eat denser foods. 

After the events of the last 18 months, anxiety levels are already higher than is usual for this time of year, with 74% of people reporting they have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. To be faced with the additional pressures of Christmas after a period of change which has already left people feeling tired and depleted represents a particular challenge, and so it’s worth remembering the risk of burnout may be higher this year, when high levels of social and personal transition have resulted in increased feelings of loss and, therefore, more anxiety more often. For some, ‘running on adrenaline’ may currently be the norm. 

Adrenaline is a hormone that naturally occurs in humans and which, at times, can save your life. If you perceive an immediate threat to your survival, such as a physical attack or potential road collision, your adrenal glands will release adrenaline into your blood stream. This increases your heart rate and triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response. During this physiological response you are temporarily stronger, quicker, and more alert in your reactions and decisions, and your ability to feel pain decreases. This combination puts you in a better position to fight the attacker or avoid the road collision and you’ll find the effects remain for a short period after the threat has subsided. Once your hormone levels are back to normal, however, you’re likely to suddenly feel very tired and might need more sleep than usual for the next few nights. 

To experience this is normal under the kind of circumstances described above and leaves no discernible detrimental effect. But when you’ve experienced a prolonged period of stress and anxiety, this physiological response can start happening on a regular basis, leaving you feeling like you’re always tired and increasingly anxious. This can have a detrimental effect on both mental and physical health. After all, no one should be in an almost permanent state of fight or flight. 

The challenges of existential threat, uncertainty around job security and income, and relationship breakdown that many have suffered since the beginning of the pandemic mean that more and more people are already relying on adrenaline to push them through the day. With the additional pressures this time of year can bring, it’s easy to see how the risk of Christmas burnout could increase.  

It is true, of course, that Christmas can be a wonderful and nourishing time spent with those we most love in the safety of our familiar surroundings, but it’s important to recognise the increased risk of stress and anxiety which comes just after what is already a prolonged period of challenge, and make sure that we’re not sacrificing ourselves for the sake of others, events, or things. The “ideal” Christmas is different for each of us and what that looks like can’t be found on a Christmas card or between the pages of a magazine. 

Anxiety Freedom Cards can help you to reduce stress and anxiety.