by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell

It’s that time at the end of the year when tempers fray, nerves are frazzled and to-do lists never seem to grow shorter. As families make plans for Christmas, it can be a minefield of juggling sensitivities and trying to accommodate the needs of everyone from mothers with young children to elderly relatives. There is the buying of presents, school prize-givings, final exam marking, and end of year strategy meetings and parties. Add to these the political and economic stresses hovering in the background, globally and locally, and it can all seem just too much.

Everyone is holding on for the promised opportunity to finally stop. In South Africa, where the end of the academic and work year coincides with the run-up to Christmas, it can be particularly tough. How do we hang onto our sanity?

One of the key things psychologists have discovered is how much our thoughts influence our stress levels. The way we interpret an event drastically influences how stressed we feel. So, when we decide that a change of plan is a disaster, our stress levels rise exponentially. If we can go with the flow and allow ourselves to gently adapt we struggle far less. It can help to say to ourselves something like: “OK, this isn’t quite what I wanted or planned, but it’s not the end of the world.”

When we panic we go into fight, flight or freeze mode. None of these are helpful (unless you are actually reacting to a real physical danger in the moment!). Our ability to process or to think creatively and to come up with a new plan is drastically impaired. When we feel ourselves going into panic mode about all that has to be done, it can help to just consciously be in the moment. Use your senses. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice what you can see, smell or touch. And just breathe!

Less is more. Often, when we get overtired and overstressed, we react by trying to do even more. We pull out all the stops and get resentful when no one notices how hard we are trying. The reality is no one really cares if the decorations are perfect or if there is more than one kind of dessert. We need to be kind to ourselves and others and lower our expectations of things that don’t actually matter.

Advent offers us a counterbalance to the freneticism. It is an invitation to slow down and to notice what is really important. It can help to take time each day to light a candle and sit quietly. For just five minutes, breathe and give thanks to God for the gift of life. Remember that the essence of what matters is not to wrap up the year perfectly or to plan the biggest and best Christmas celebration.

Rather, advent is an opportunity to savour with gratitude the gifts of God. It is the time to wait, with a sense of peaceful expectation, for the celebration of God’s coming into our messy and frazzled lives.