Around Christmas time, there is a well-documented peak in anxiety, depression, social phobia and other stress-related problems. For many people, Christmas isn’t the celebration it’s supposed to be. On top of all our normal responsibilities, Christmas can seem like just one more thing to cope with, another turn of the screw, yet another set of tasks in an already packed schedule, another financial pressure. On top of all that, many of us will be spending a whole day with people we don’t like, even if they are family – or perhaps because they are family.
I live in central Southampton and every year I see the same thing around Christmas – traffic gridlock, angry and impatient drivers, pushy shoppers with frayed nerves, huge queues, and brightly lit advertising and loud music everywhere to overwhelm the senses. Shops capitalise on the large numbers of visitors by advertising special offers, two-for-one deals and the like. Their aim is to make you buy on impulse. To do that, they need to surmount your prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain that has a sense of self and can make informed, rational decisions. Crucially, activity in your prefrontal cortex is diminished when you are stressed, thereby making you more susceptible to impulsive decision-making. In other words, Christmas advertising deliberately tries to make you stressed (although the advertisers would never admit it), because it’s well known that people under pressure are more likely to buy on impulse. So how is the pressure applied? The tactics used by advertisers are threefold:
1.They make the advert as noisy and colourful as possible, to disorient you and catch you off-guard.
2.They use promotions such as buy-one-get-one-free and special offers to instil a feeling that you will be “missing out” if you don’t buy right now.
3.They capitalise on the fact that you are already stressed from a difficult journey on overcrowded roads – they know they can draw people in with advertising that at any other time of the year might seem inappropriate, over-the-top and annoying.
You’ll know all too well that advertising is everywhere, on all forms of media. It’s unavoidable and it is more influential than you might care to admit. It intentionally perpetuates a low-level of stress, to prevent you from forgetting about your responsibilities at Christmas, and to keep you ready to make a purchase.
So if you can’t avoid the added responsibility, the disruption, the hype, the crowds, the unfettered pressure to spend, spend, spend, what can you do?
Firstly, remember the true meaning of Christmas, for you personally. Regardless of your religious beliefs, Christmas marks the end of the winter solstice, the time of year when the days will be growing longer again. It is the end of the old and the beginning of the new: new chances, new prospects, time to consider old ideas in a new light. It’s a time for rest, relaxation, reflection and celebration. It’s a time for giving thoughtfully-chosen gifts to people who appreciate them. It’s a time for helping others and for connecting with people whom we truly love – and that doesn’t cost anything at all.
19th December 2016