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Follow our guide to a happy and safe festive season

PACE YOURSELF:
When it comes to shopping and social commitments, the message from our experts is clear: Christmas is not a race - slow down, take deep breaths and plan ahead. Rushing on the roads and trolley rage could have significant short and long-term effects on people's health, they said.

A small study of shoppers conducted in the UK in December 2008 showed a 10 per cent increase in heart rates and potentially dangerous high blood pressure readings after just 75 minutes of Saturday Christmas shopping on a busy high street.

The research, carried out by the University of East London, found that feelings of stress and irritability rose considerably, with men's stress levels doubling during the shopping spree. Women were almost three times as stressed and almost half (47 per cent) suffered a headache when gift shopping.

"Deep breathing activates your nervous system and forces you to relax," exercise physiologist Jodie Hopkins said. "If you are in a stressful state, even in the shopping centre carpark, stop where you are and take 10 deep breaths through your abdomen. Fully inflate and expand the abdomen with each breath and you will feel calmer and able to carry on."

So, planning ahead, whittling down the wish list and starting sooner could save your heart and your head.

PREPARE FOOD PROPERLY:
Hot weather, unwashed hands, uncovered food and cross-contamination combine to make 5.4 million Australians sick annually, according to the Food Safety Information Council.

To avoid giving people the unenviable gift of food poisoning, follow the council's Choose, Clean, Chill, Cook and Separate strategy. Choose a manageable menu; fridges and bench spaces should be clean; food should not stay unrefrigerated for more than four hours; food should be cooked right through and foods should be separated at all stages, including in the shopping bags. Visit public.health.wa.gov.au or check with your local health authority.

LIMIT FAT AND SUGAR:
Standing next to the nibbles table while downing cocktails and spirits was the surest way to rack up the Christmas calories, dietitian Julie Meek said.

"Don't be a squirrel, move away from the table or you will nibble," she said. "The safest way to stop yourself eating snacks that are high in fat, salt and sugar is to issue a blanket ban. They are not worthy, they will make you thirsty and you will drink more - you don't need to add that to what you have already eaten"

Eating breakfast and small meals combining complex carbohydrates and protein before a Christmas party would keep the urge to overindulge at bay, she said. Mixer soft drinks high in sugar should be swapped for low-kilojoule alternatives such as lime and soda, while yoghurt, fruit, salads and finger food such as Vietnamese spring rolls and sushi were great alternatives to richer high-sugar and fat foods such as party pies and sausage rolls.

KEEP MOVING:
Train smarter and use shorter power bursts and be flexible with your schedule, says exercise physiologist Jodie Hopkins. "Christmas is such a busy time and fitness routines are the first to fall apart," Ms Hopkins said. "Plan activity into your day and set aside 20 minutes every day for structured exercise. Just be active and do something different to keep it interesting."

Ms Hopkins said people should do their best and be realistic about what was achievable according to their fitness levels.

MANAGE EXPECTATIONS:
A lack of communication, unrealistic family expectations and money worries often combined to bring a negative charge to celebrations, said Relationships Australia counsellor Mary-Jo Morgan. Old family tensions were exacerbated during a time when people would reflect on the year gone by.

"People are often locked into a role within their family setting," Ms Morgan said. "Sometimes that role can be a burden. It's important to think about how you want other people to see you and not to let their expectations derail you. Try to stay centred as much as possible."

The pressure to buy the latest trendy gifts and to see everyone in a 24-hour period could be solved by agreeing to gift-buying limits and spreading the celebrations over several days. Meeting with family members before Christmas Day could defuse tensions, while family counselling beforehand could help recently separated or split families negotiate a peaceful way forward. "Christmas is about the kids and it's important that adult issues are put aside during this time," she said.

In a survey compiled by headspace - Australia's national youth mental health foundation - in December 2011, 58 per cent of the 500 young people aged 12 to 25 surveyed cited "tensions between family members" as a key reason for feeling negative about Christmas, while 52 per cent cited financial pressures.

A confidential 24-hour support service for young people can be accessed at headspace.org.au.

GO EASY ON THE ALCOHOL:
Apart from the extra calories, drinking to excess over the festive season can add fuel to strained relationships, impair judgment and add to fatigue, with some far-reaching health consequences.

Royal Perth Hospital emergency physician Michelle Johnston said December was an especially busy time, with alcohol playing a significant part in about 90 per cent of overnight emergency admissions.

"Year after year, we talk about the major incidents involving alcohol that lead to serious traffic accidents and things like people diving into shallow pools," Dr Johnston said.

"But we also see an undercurrent of people who end up in the observation ward, especially during the weekends in December, who have done something out of character while under the influence. It's a heady mix of family and societal expectations that celebrations will involve more alcohol than usual."

Dr Johnston said people of all ages could find themselves in the emergency department after "letting their hair down" a little too much. Others experienced parasuicidal feelings and were more likely to self-harm during the festive season, but often those feelings would dissipate once the alcohol had worn off. "Some people go through life-altering events during this time and these are average people who wouldn't normally have a problem with alcohol. Space your drinks, eat something when you're drinking and have alcohol-free days every week - schedule them in," she said.

GET ENOUGH SLEEP:
It seems the old rule of thumb - eight hours a night - is an ideal amount of sleep for a healthy life and can be crucial during the busy festive season.

According to a Deakin University report released in September, those sleeping six hours or less have severely restricted wellbeing, while those who sleep between seven and nine hours a night - about two-thirds of the population - have normal or above normal wellbeing.

The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index survey links lack of sleep to higher rates of stress and anxiety among its 2000 respondents. "Sleep closely correlates to people's overall wellbeing," said the report's lead author, Robert Cummins, head of Deakin University's Australian Centre on Quality of Life.

"Those who sleep six hours a night report significantly lower levels of satisfaction with their health and safety, which are linked to higher anxiety. This, in turn, can cause, or be caused by, a lack of sleep," Professor Cummins said. "The findings were consistent across all age groups."

GO FOR HEALTH SCREENINGS AND TREATMENTS:
A research study released this month by a central online healthcare booking portal reported that almost one in two people would allow their medical condition to worsen when they could not find an available appointment at a time that suited them.

The 12-month online study, conducted by 1stavailable.com.au, quizzed 6500 participants and found 51 per cent postponed everything from GP visits, dental, chiropractic and massage treatment and 59 per cent experienced increased pain resulting from their condition.

The Healthcare Access Study found that when their preferred practitioner was unavailable, only one in three sought treatment elsewhere. Of these, 60 per cent felt frustrated by the process of finding and booking a different healthcare appointment.

With appointments already scarce, the study highlighted the need for people to plan ahead before services closed for the festive season, 1stavailable.com.au executive chairman Klaus Bartosch said.

PUT SAFETY FIRST:
Whether it's badly made or small parts, poor assembly or incorrect use, new toys and equipment pose the biggest risk to children's health over the holidays.

Along with near-drownings and sunburn, falls from scooters, skateboards and trampolines accounted for a majority of summer admissions to Princess Margaret Hospital's emergency department between 2005 and 2011.

Admission records show choking and swallowing small toy parts, swallowing Christmas decorations and the ingestion of button batteries are high on the injury list. Kidsafe WA advised Christmas shoppers to follow the age recommendation, read the label and instructions and avoid exploding and projectile toys.

St John Ambulance business services manager Greg Massam said families should be prepared with a well-stocked first-aid kit and store it in a safe, cool place out of reach of children.

"Most kits will have approximately a two-year shelf life," Mr Massam said. "Over time, you may have used items, damaged items and have expired items, so we recommend you audit and replenish your kit regularly. Injuries occur more frequently during summer holidays, so having a fully stocked first-aid kit can stand you in good stead.

"Some important items to consider would include dressings for such injuries as falls or sprained ankles, ointments to treat insect stings and paracetamol for pain relief." Every family should also have at least one person trained in first aid. "First aid saves lives - it's that simple, and we really encourage all families to learn life-saving techniques."

AVOID BEING ALONE:
The busiest day of the year for Lifeline's 13 11 14 crisis support line is Christmas Day. The 24-hour service receives a new call every 50 seconds during the festive period, with loneliness featuring strongly.

On average, Lifeline speaks to more than 1400 people a day around Christmas and new year, with each call lasting about 20 minutes, and each with its own unique emotional crisis. If you are feeling distressed or isolated, Lifeline suggests talking to a trusted friend or family member, your GP, a counsellor or phoning a helpline.

A range of self-help toolkits on various subjects, including grief, financial pressure, stress, suicide prevention and domestic violence, are available on the Lifeline website - lifeline.org.au. If you or someone you know is experiencing an emotional crisis, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Relationships Australia counsellor Mary-Jo Morgan said families should consider adopting someone who was alone at Christmas and inviting them to their celebrations. "Bring them into the family fold - it will make a big difference to the person who is feeling lonely," Ms Morgan said. "Often, they will put on a front, saying they are happy being alone, but try inviting someone and see how quickly they accept."

BE FLEXIBLE:
Relationship friction at Christmas often stemmed from the pressure to spend time with immediate and extended family members and the expectation that everything would go according to plan, said Relationships Australia counsellor Mary-Jo Morgan.

"How to share your time and affection can become quite a drama," she said.

"Some relatives can make demands that can't always be met, so it's important to be honest and communicate about what is possible. Often people can be very rigid in their expectations but some flexibility on all sides is required around these issues. It's not about being right, it's about making sure that everyone's needs are met."

Ms Morgan said people often lost sight of the intended meaning of Christmas and focusing on feelings of harmony, peace and generosity rather than a sense of duty would make gatherings less fraught.

CURB THE SPENDING:
Financial pressures rank among the biggest triggers for family stress throughout the year - during the festive season they can trigger relationship troubles and create new debt cycles that can last for several months, sometimes years.

Financial planner David McGregor, of N.C. Bruining & Associates said the golden rule to stave off money woes was: "If you haven't got it, don't spend it".

"Saving a bit each month is an excellent idea," Mr McGregor said. "You can then splurge without the guilt or the hangover. Most banks offer a savings account which encourages you to save by paying a bonus interest if you make no withdrawals for the month. Set up a regular transfer from your working account on payday."

Revolving lines of credit and interest-free loans should be considered carefully, while shopping for bargains throughout the year was useful if well planned, he said.

The Salvation Army runs is a free and confidential financial counselling service for people facing financial difficulties or wanting to avoid financial difficulties in the future. Staff are able to help with a range of issues including budgeting, credit, debt and repossession. Visit moneysmart.gov.au for calculators and tips.

WHO CAN HELP:
Relationships Australia: 1300 364 277, branches open 9am to 5pm and some evenings. West Leederville office closes December 24.
FPWA Sexual Health Services: Can assist with family expectations, sensitivities and relationships. The Roe Street Centre for Human Relationships offers low-cost support and counselling. To make an appointment, phone 9228 3693.

OPEN CHRISTMAS DAY:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Crisis Care: 9223 1111
Family Helpline: 9223 1100, 1800 643 000 (country freecall)
Kids Help Line: 1800 551 800 (freecall)
Men's Domestic Violence Helpline: 9223 1199
Women’s Domestic Violence Helpline: 9223 1188
Parenting Line: 6279 1200
Suicide Emergency Line: 1800 198 313
Samaritans: 1800 198 313