Once a time for Christian religious worship, now a time of peak consumption. I know people who are so stressed about Christmas that they can barely sleep for worrying about posting cards off in time, getting the right presents for their family and friends, planning the schedule for the ritual Christmas dinner, cooking it – and making sure that everything goes exactly right throughout the whole day.

And what of those who don’t spend Christmas with a partner, friends or family? Having experienced this myself, I know only too well that if you aren’t initially upset about your situation, everyone else will unwittingly conspire to ensure that you are, as the day approaches. Were you looking forward to getting up when you felt like it, eating what you want when you want, going out for a walk in the woods and then luxuriating in a hot bath, before catching up on that box set you’ve been saving up? Hard luck. By the time the day arrives, you’ll feel like a solitary failure of a human, because you’re ‘on your own on Christmas Day’.

Last year one of my clients was in full Christmas meltdown and described it as a “greed-fest”. She felt worn out by the responsibility of making sure that the whole thing went as it should and that everything was bought, posted, wrapped, decorated and cooked: “I’m on a treadmill and I can’t get off,” she lamented. She was not the only one to feel that way.

It’s worst of all for those who are getting into debt so that their children and families “can have a Christmas”. And those who are homeless, out of work, or simply out of luck already feel bad enough about their situations without being bombarded with reminders of what they can’t afford.

How did it come to this? When did goodwill and peace on earth turn into a pile of presents, many bought in desperation? All of the accessories – the tree, the decorations, the wrapping paper, cards – all end up as rubbish to be disposed of or recycled in the New Year.  And what of the overeating, the excess, and most of all, the hard work and the stress? For the people stage-managing it all (and usually they’re women) the emotional fatigue sets in long before the turkey goes in the oven.

Having witnessed Christmas grow into the monster that it has become during the course of my life, I ask my stressed-out clients what they want to do about their Xmas anxieties  Many of them say they want to get off the treadmill – in fact, I’ve seen the very thought of it bring tears to their eyes.

And yet getting off the treadmill is so easy. It’s staying on it that’s hard!

Talk to others first, of course, in plenty of time. And when you do you may find that they are enormously relieved as well. Make a plan. Perhaps you’ll agree that everyone will buy just one small gift as a ‘secret Santa’ lucky dip, or maybe give homemade presents like jars of chutney or biscuits. Or you’ll donate a gift to a women’s refuge for them or their children to have something to open on Christmas Day. Instead of buying something, you might wrap up a promise (to clean your friend’s house, do the ironing, make a cake, take them out for the day, go to the cinema, etc). If you want a big get-together, you could each bring something for a shared Christmas dinner, ready-prepared. Or you could just go for a walk in the woods or on the beach, breathe some fresh air and focus on what you have to feel grateful for. Instead of piles of Christmas cards that are thrown away on Twelfth Night, send your friends a real Christmas message by email, one that is personal to them.

Maybe it’s too late for this year and you’ve already sent the cards, ordered the turkey, done the online shopping and the real-life shopping, wrapped the presents and decorated the tree. But there’s always next year.

Or maybe you’re a big fan of your current way of celebrating the festive season – in which case, there’s no problem.

I personally love Christmas but what matters to me is the emotional connection with others.

But if Christmas for you is a treadmill of excess and stress rather than a time of peace, hope and goodwill, just be aware that it takes more effort to stay on that treadmill than it does to step off it.

And remember – the most important gifts come from the heart and not the wallet.  And we can give those at any time of year.