We all know that drinking alcohol can cause us to lose our inhibitions, but what happens when we find ourselves drinking in a particularly stressful situation – like a family Christmas?

Christmas can be an overwhelming time, whether you love celebrating the festivities with your family or start breaking out in a sweat at the thought of spending 24/7 in their company. The stress of buying presents and preparing food adds to the mounting pressure to make the most of December – from attending multiple Christmas drinks to frantically trying to book trains to visit far-flung friends.  

One reason the festive season can be such a strain? Alcohol. Booze inevitably comes with the festive territory from early December right through to New Year.

Weirdly, even if you know your limits, Christmas parties are an absolute beacon for getting far drunker than you intended. We’ve all been there: one minute, you’re having a serious discussion about work, the next, you’re vomiting in a corner of the club. Is it that we’re just unable to contain ourselves the moment Advent hits? Or is there some scientific reason behind why we’re less able to tolerate alcohol when overwhelmed?

One expert shares why we may be more prone to the effects of alcohol at Christmas and how best to navigate party season.

Why might alcohol affect us more at Christmas?

Psychotherapist Anna Mathur tells Stylist: “Alcohol is a nervous system depressant, so at Christmas, you could think of a drink as pushing down the tightly coiled spring that is your emotions. Momentarily, you will feel relaxed, but actually it can heighten whatever you’re feeling, so the spring will bounce back up again. Numbing these feelings only increases the pressure felt when they do inevitably come out.”

During the festive season – which can be overwhelming on so many levels – you may not be sleeping as well or eating a balanced diet, so your body won’t have the same ability to handle alcohol as it might have at other times. Mathur continues, “When you’re stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is in a more heightened fight-or-flight state, and just as we use drinking to dull our feelings when we’re overwhelmed, the body counteracts itself by actually becoming more sensitive and making alcohol hit us harder.”

This means that if you go into a Christmas party in a good mood, you’ll probably feel happy and excited throughout the evening. If you’re grieving, sad or depressed before you turn up, however, “the filter disappears, and those emotions come out quicker as alcohol creates chemical changes in our brains that create more of those feelings”.

3 tips for managing your emotions while drinking alcohol (in moderation)

Offload before you go out

“If you know you’re holding something in and are feeling particularly emotional, consider what conversations you can have intentionally to offload and release with a trusted friend before heading to a party,” says Mathur. This in turn removes some of the build-up of stress or overwhelm, and puts you in control of those feelings before you have a drink.

“It’s useful to have that awareness if you’re going to be with people you wouldn’t want to feel depressed in front of, when you do have fewer inhibitions,” Mathur adds.

Think about how you’re feeling before having a drink

Although it sounds simple, taking a moment to be aware and tune into your emotions is a valuable move. Mathur suggests that you “ask yourself what’s going on today and contemplate what you’re handling so you’re aware of any anxiety or stress. This gives you the opportunity to think whether you’d want to share that with colleagues or people who aren’t close friends.”

Try to break the cycle

“While you might momentarily be holding feelings in, having a drink means they will spill out further which can incite that feeling of guilt and shame alcohol can cause,” says Mathur.“If you’re already overwhelmed or stressed, you’ll naturally veer towards being more self-critical so you aren’t engaging in behaviours that help.” 

Try to take time for you by having a rest and enjoying pockets of self-care to break that negative thought cycle – both when you have a festive drink and to stop you using it as an ongoing Christmas crutch. “What we want and need isn’t always the same thing,” adds Mathur. 

Heading into the festive season with an awareness of your emotions and how alcohol might affect them sounds like a thoughtful Christmas gift to ourselves, and something we’ll be taking with us into the new year.

Images: Getty

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