Stressed about Christmas? Here's why your instinct is to spend


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It's a typical morning in the office. I'm sitting at my desk, coffee in one hand, scrolling through my emails, checking any important requests and organising the day in my head. Nothing unusual: all is calm and well in the world.

This is until one of my colleagues casually walks past and says, "It's hard to believe there's only two weekends until Christmas!"

Instantly my heartbeat quickens, my vision blurs and a small bead of perspiration forms on my brow. Panic. Two weeks! I start to think of all the things that need to be done.

christmas stress brain overspend

There's the summer holiday with our kids, hosting Christmas day at our place, multiple other family gatherings, office get-togethers, people I have promised to have drinks with and presents for my family and team.

I look at my inbox in an attempt to refocus my efforts on the urgent work at hand, but instead all I can see is a stream of messages from my team about Christmas party details, calendar invites to functions, catalogues full of present options, a message from my wife about sorting holiday travel arrangements, and HR reminders of all the things I need to do before the Christmas break. Clearly, it's time for another coffee.

As I walk through town to buy an overpriced cup of escapism, I hear the sound of carols and see all the displays set up in the local stores. Then it hits me - I have absolutely no idea what present to buy my wife for Christmas! Sheer panic.

We all know this feeling when it comes to the silly season. The time of year where we all feel judged on the quality of our present giving and general sociability. The problem with panic is that we rarely make good decisions when we feel stressed.

Research has shown time and time again that people in this highly emotional and reactive state are much more likely to make a poor decision.

Behavioural economics science calls this "System 1 thinking" - the state of judgement and decision making where we rely heavily on natural instinct and mental rules of thumb to navigate the world.

The greater the panic, the greater the magnitude of poor decision making that is likely to take place. This is because panic plays a crucial role in our survival mechanism.

Our brain puts us into a state of panic in threatening situations to activate our body and escape the immediate danger.

When we panic, our brain doesn't differentiate between a lion charging at us and the thought of social isolation or scorn if we don't give an appropriate gift.

Our brain is hardwired to do whatever it needs to do to reduce panic and keep us alive. The trick here is to avoid falling into the trap of buying overly expensive or excessive gifts to mitigate the panic associated with not meeting expectations.

Striving for meaningful gifts and social connection is what we all desire at Christmas time, and learning to control our emotions and not getting into a state of panic is key to spending within our means and staying sane this silly season.

How to lighten the Christmas load

1. Start planning early

You'll sleep better and make better decisions if you don't feel under pressure. Make sure your budget includes things like gifts, drinks and cabs, and don't forget that presents bought online need time to be delivered!

2. Draw up a highly visual diary

Create a December calendar in a format you and your family can access so everyone knows about upcoming events and you can remind yourself of the tasks that need to be done.

3. There's an app for that

There are many apps specifically designed to help organise your budget, tasks and life over the Christmas period.

4. Set spending limits for you and your partner

Thoughtfulness is always seen as more valuable than simply buying an expensive gift (which we often do if we feel the need to compensate for thoughtlessness).

5. Manage the expectations

Have a conversation early with your family if you need to moderate your spending on presents and events due to other priorities.

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Phil Slade is a behavioural economist and psychologist and the author of Going Ape S#!t! and founder of Decida. He works across digital innovation, strategy and cognitive bias. Phil holds a Bachelor of Psychology from The University of Queensland and a Master of Organisational Psychology from Griffith University.

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