Let’s Do Christmas!

I’m seeing lots of posts on social media and hearing lots of friends saying that Christmas is cancelled this year.

Lockdown no’s 1 and 2 and the new Tier System have certainly put restrictions in place that will inevitably change our usual plans – there is no doubt about the fact that Christmas will be different this year.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have just as much fun! It’s all about perspective…

A quick check in first on why our brain is doing this – why is it getting us making such sweeping statements like “Christmas is Cancelled”?

Well, it’s no surprise that our brains are looking at this from the worst case scenario – Christmas is cancelled!!  Our poor old brains have undergone a barrage of information over the last 9 months telling us how dangerous the world is, not just in far flung places but right here on our own doorsteps.  This sets the alarm bells ringing in our primitive brains – the part designed to keep us safe. In fact our primitive brain is rather happy with the idea of lockdown, it plays in to one of our primitive survival responses, “if we stay safe in our cave we’re more likely to survive”.

But our primitive brain is really only designed to deal with short term threats – you know, that sabre tooth tiger looking for dinner, or that woolly mammoth charging at you. Scary though those situations might have been for our ancestors, one way or the other they were over pretty quickly!  Our primitive brain isn’t really designed for long term crisis – it just doesn’t have the more complex thinking abilities required to deal with them and look beyond surviving the next 20 minutes or so.

This is why so many of us have struggled to find a way to cope with the situation – once our primitive brain is on high alert we actually get cut off from the very skills and resources required to help us cope better with the situation. Ironic huh!

So what can we do turn off that super sensitive alarm system in our brain so that we can start to take a more balanced view of what is going on and look at Christmas in a different way.

Because I promise you there is a different way!

The first thing to do is to get some balance back – the reason our primitive brain goes on high alert is because it’s paying attention to all the information we are consuming. Now this isn’t about burying our head in the sand and ignoring what is going on, this is about creating a better balance. So rather than having the 24 hour news bar scrolling across your screen as you work, try just checking in on the headlines once a day. Rather than getting absorbed in the details of each story, just choose one headline to read deeper on. And balance that out – seek out some good news stories to create a better balance. There are some amazingly positive stories coming out from this situation too!

Once we’ve created that better balance it’s easier for our brain to look at situations from a different perspective.

But, I can hear you all saying, how on earth can we still enjoy Christmas this year with all these restrictions in place? Well it’ all about perspective! There are always lots of different routes to get to the same destination!

Our brain’s learn through experience – in our brain’s processing of what has gone on during the day it’s making sense of what our experiences mean to us, before storing them in the vast library of our brain. To make sure we can access them again it tags them, just like a real library. So when we think of Christmas the memories our brain pulls off the shelves in our library are exciting days Christmas shopping with the magical feeling of the shops with all their decorations; Christmas lunches with work colleagues and friends in December; big Christmas family dinners or quiet Christmases with our closest love ones; maybe even Christmas on the beach! All things I think we’d probably struggle to do right now with the current restrictions we have in place. So our brains are much more likely to look at Christmas and decide that that is something we can’t do right now as it can’t find any references that feel familiar associated with it and so we find ourselves saying “Christmas is cancelled”.  When we look at situations in this way we end up creating a very fixed mindset around it – “this is how I usually do that, if I can’t do it that way I can’t do it at all”.

And that was how I first found myself thinking about a cancelled trip earlier on in lockdown. It was our 20th Wedding anniversary back in May, we should have been going away for a long weekend to celebrate. But we couldn’t. I had to force my brain to look at this from a different angle. That trip we should have gone on, what feelings would it have created?  Normally, a trip away for us would have created a sense of adventure, of celebration, of togetherness, it would have felt special.

So me and my husband set about thinking how else could we generate those feelings, without leaving our own house! We asked ourselves the question “I wonder how else we can generate those feelings?”

So we served breakfast as it would have been served to us in a hotel. Our meal out became a special meal we cooked at home, we didn’t get to raise a glass in our favourite local pub, but we did recreate the pub, as best we could in our garden summer house. We couldn’t meet up and celebrate with our friends and family, especially those who had shared our day together 20 years ago. So instead our friends recorded video messages so we could still celebrate with our friends old and new. And all these things we did generated those feelings of celebration, of togetherness and of adventure without even leaving our house – we were celebrating a special occasion but in a very different way. It felt like a very special day – one that was extra special BECAUSE we’d had to do it differently.

We do have an amazing part of our brain which is designed to help us to do this, to look at things differently, a part of our brain that actively encourages us to step out of our comfort zone rather than staying safe in our cave. A part of our brain that see’s challenges to overcome rather than threats to run away from. That more modern, intellectual, rational part of our brain would look at Christmas and go “Hey, I wonder how we can do this differently to make sure we have just as much fun, maybe even more?”

And sometimes that’s all we need to do – ask our brain a curious question “I wonder how…..” Our prefrontal cortex loves to be posed with a challenge like this, a puzzle to solve. If we don’t challenge our brain to look at a different perspective in this way it will often get stuck in trying to do things the same we always have – after all this is a tried and tested way and therefore more efficient from our brains point of view. But, with the restrictions in place, looking at things the same way we always have done is going to end up getting us focused on all the things we can’t do – we can’t have a big family dinner, we can’t have Christmas on an exotic beach, we can’t go Christmas shopping on the high street, we can’t go and see Santa. Lots of things we can’t do – and thinking in this way just triggers that primitive brain again to start looking for the next danger again.

So a curious question is much more likely to trigger our brain to start scouting around looking for alternatives. So if we would normally enjoy family board games after lunch and we ask our brain “I wonder how we can still bring everyone together to enjoy a board game?” we might find an online alternative which everyone can join in on no matter where they are. Or choose different games that lend themselves to Zoom calls – I’m pretty sure a game of charades would be absolutely hilarious over Zoom!

Think about the key elements of your Christmas, the ones that make it YOUR Christmas – we all have our own traditions that have built up over the years and challenge your brain to look at them differently. Use that question “I wonder how…” then get on with your day, let your brain do some scouting around and you’ll be surprised at some of the solutions your brain will give you!

Creating a special Christmas for you and your loved ones really is about taking a different perspective – who knows you might create some new traditions during this Christmas that you carry forward for years to come.

Why not check out our Top Tips to Enjoy a Different Christmas for some ideas!

About the Author: Caroline Prout is based in our Thrapston clinic in rural East Northamptonshire.  Caroline chose to retrain as a hypnotherapist after her own anxiety led to physical health problems and a diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.  “One of the things that helped me the most in my recovery was understanding how our brains work and why that can have such a huge impact on our wellbeing, both physical and mental and this is something I now share with all my clients”.  Using her own experiences and training Caroline specialises in helping people overcome anxiety and chronic conditions such as CFS, Fibromyalgia and other auto-immune conditions.  

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