At this time of year, television adverts are full of happy families gathering for Christmas and enjoying perfect celebrations together.

But we all know that in real life this isn’t the case for every household.

Nearly one in four people (23%) who say they feel anxious or stressed about Christmas say it’s because they feel pressure to make everyone enjoy it, according to a survey we carried out with Opinion Matters in October.

17% of UK adults say they preferred last year’s Christmas, which was more low-key due to COVID-19 restrictions limiting social gatherings.

14% of the UK admit they feel pressure to make Christmas extra special this year, following last year’s Covid-19 restrictions.

And we now also have rapidly rising COVID-rates and greater uncertainty about getting ill or possible future restrictions on top of the usual pressures.

Normal to feel this way

Katie Rose, a therapist based in Essex and London, says it’s normal to feel anxious and under pressure at this time of year.

“There are so many stressful hurdles to overcome, even before the big day,” she adds, highlighting the expense and pressure of buying presents, shopping, cooking, and other preparations.

“If that wasn't enough, there’s the stress of seeing family and friends, in-laws, extended families, and all the additional tensions and politics that come along with it. 

“In addition to all the 'usual' things, this year there's the added pressure that Covid brings. Maybe this is your first Christmas without someone special, or you're missing family abroad. Will we even be allowed to meet? And if we are, is it safe? 

She continues: “When you think about it like this, it would be unusual if you weren't feeling a little anxious. But if that feeling is becoming overwhelming, it might be time to take a step back and reconsider."

What do you want?

Liz Lewis, a York-based therapist, says it’s important to remember what you want from Christmas, and to think about why you’re agreeing to what your family want.

"It all comes down to having the confidence to do what you want to do," she adds. "Family traditions can be very difficult. Families often follow a pattern and do what they always do.

"Think about why you’re doing this. Is it just to please other people? Could you all have an honest conversation about whether it’s best to celebrate this way. It may feel like you’re not following the family rules – but who wrote those rules?

“Be honest, if you can. You might find that other people don’t want to do these things as well. This could be an opportunity to reset,” she says.

Tips on how to cope with family pressures at Christmas

Katie has shared some handy tips to help you navigate family pressures and expectations this Christmas.

Make a plan

"Think about what you want your Christmas to look like, and plan around that. Do you want to invite family and friends over? Or would you rather spend the day with close family, maybe in your PJs, watching Christmas movies and playing board games."

Self-care is essential

"Try to take some time out for yourself. In reality, it's impossible to 'make' other people feel happy - you can really only focus on your own feelings. If you're feeling happy, chances are that will rub off on everyone else. Build in some downtime for yourself and take some time to focus on what you need."

Boundaries are important

"Think about what's really important to you, and if there's something that you feel really strongly about, say so. Pick your battles carefully - you can do this politely and thoughtfully. Establish boundaries to protect your own mental health. If you don't want to do something, weigh up the pros and cons, and if you still decide it's not worth it, politely decline."

Keep it simple

"Letting someone know that you hold them in your thoughts and that you've chosen something personal can be just as special as a big, extravagant gift."

Don't drink too much

"There are so many opportunities to socialise, and along with that comes the temptation of drinking too much alcohol, and the many side effects that brings - lowering inhibitions which can lead to arguments, sickness and anxiety the next day."

Try to pay attention to the present

"Worrying about what might happen in the future, or what has happened in the past distracts you from enjoying what's happening right now. Look around you and enjoy the small moments - the tree, presents, the love and warmth of family and friends, food and drink and the many reasons to celebrate."

Figures from a survey of 2,014 UK adults between 21 and 25 October 2021 carried out by BACP and Opinion Matters.

To find a counsellor or psychotherapist who can help you with family issues visit our therapist directory.