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The stress of Christmas can be an obstacle or something enjoyable, depending on your mindset

Adopting a more positive attitude to stress can improve how you feel and make you more effective in doing what needs to be done

Christmas is speeding down the tracks so this might be as good a time as any to talk about the benefits of stress.

People like me, who work and write in the area of mental health, can give stress a bad name, suggesting it’s a big, horrible scary monster to avoid.

But whether the stress of Christmas – parties, presents, family, and all the rest – becomes an obstacle or something more enjoyable, depends a lot on the mindset you bring to it.

Mindset means the mental lens through which you view someone or something. Mindsets are powerful – probably more so than we generally acknowledge. Knowing about mindsets helps you all year round and not just at Christmas.


As an example that has nothing to do with Christmas, take the mindset we bring to ageing. People with a very negative mindset about ageing are less likely to take care of themselves when they are old, with all the consequences (some fatal) that flow from that. So if your mindset is negative, and if you want to boost your chances of a good old age, change the attitude.

In a less serious example, people given a milkshake which they were told was loaded with calories, felt less hungry (and had a reduction in the hunger hormone, ghrelin) than people who were told the milkshake had few calories. Yes, pity it doesn’t work for the booze.

Coming back to stress, people who see a stressful feeling as enhancing their performance take a more balanced approach to challenges than those who see it as debilitating.

That’s according to research led by psychologist Alia Crum at Yale University and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Stress involves, among other things, the production of cortisol. Too much cortisol over too long a time can mean higher blood pressure, weight gain, greater anxiety and difficulty in concentrating. Too little cortisol can leave you demotivated. People who see stress as bad tend to produce too much or too little cortisol, the research says.

Those who see stress as a performance enhancer produce just the right amount.

So plunging into the shops at the last minute isn’t helped by you telling yourself how terrible it all is.

But what is the point of this information?

The point is that adopting a more positive attitude to stress can improve how you feel and can make you more effective in doing what needs to be done.

The first step towards a healthier attitude, according to a piece by Crum and her husband Thomas in the Harvard Business Review, is to note that you are stressed.

That looks like stating the bleedin’ obvious but labelling an emotion such as stress is more useful than it sounds.

Labelling shifts the focus of your brain from the primitive emotional system to the neocortex where a lot of our planning and analysis happens. The same principle applies to labelling emotions, such as fear, anger, anxiety, or sadness – the labelling helps you to wallow less, so to speak, in the feeling and to see what you actually need to do. That’s why labelling your emotions is a method employed in cognitive behavioural therapy.

The second step is to remind yourself that stress is meant to improve your performance. Third, you can then move forward and do what needs to be done.

So if you’re still stressing about what to get for your spouse or other significant other for Christmas, begin by acknowledging that you’re stressed and that being stressed isn’t the end of the world. Bring that mindset with you into the shops or when you drag yourself to meet family members you don’t really want to meet and who don’t really want to meet you.

And then bring what you’ve learned about stress into the coming year.

You don’t have to like being stressed, but all the research suggests that if you are willing to see the stress as helping you to do better, then you will do better.

Have a stressful little Christmas.

  • Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness - a guide to self-compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (