Holiday stress is almost as common a phrase as Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas stocking. It’s a sad commentary on our life and times that stress has become so associated with a festive, celebratory, and for many, holy, time of year. What has brought us to this sorry state of affairs? As therapists, we attend to our client’s psycho/social/spiritual concerns. In so doing we hear many tales each year of how stressed out people get over the holidays. This won’t be your typical article about shopping early and not over eating. My intention is to delve deeper into why we experience stress the last month of every year instead of the joy that the season is supposed to bring.
TAKE THE HOLIDAYS BACK FROM THE COMMERCIAL INTERESTS
It has almost become unpatriotic not to spend excessive amounts of money on gifts over the holidays. We are reminded each year of the profits that various retailers did or did not make this season. We are lead to believe that companies either make it or break it over the holiday season. This may, in fact, be sadly true. But do we need or want to support a system that depends on spending that is often over budget for the individual consumer and sometimes merely obligatory. The propaganda proliferating our radio and TV airwaves and our print media is pervasive and alarming. We are bombarded with images of happy families spending, spending, and spending. The subliminal message is that to spend brings happiness. But the truth is that to give brings happiness. Giving and spending are two different things. We can, and I believe should, give of our time, energy, love and talent. This is a particularly good time of year to remember what it is exactly that each of us has to give; what our unique gift to bestow on others is. Visit your favorite retailer or cyber-store if you must, but do it with consciousness and spend with fiscal responsibility to yourself. Accumulation of debt is without a doubt one of the biggest causes of stress, anxiety and depression in our culture. Spend what you can afford and what feels like a true extension of your good wishes. Do not spend yourself into debt or spend out of a false sense of obligation. Consider as well, some of the suggestions made in the next section.
DISCUSS AND REFINE FAMILY GIVING TRADITIONS
Christmas and Chanukah wouldn’t be the same without the joy and surprise on the faces of little ones as they open gifts and delight over what Santa has brought them. I would be the last to suggest that we stop giving presents to our children. However, I have experienced first hand in my own family that sometimes there are too many gifts even for the kids. After awhile the presents seem meaningless. Sometimes children are overwhelmed and begin to cry or act out. When there are too many gifts, children lose track of who gave them what and lose the potential lesson of how to be a gracious receiver. The holidays are a time to teach our children gratitude, not greed. The chaos around the tree can bring stress to the adults as well as we realize that too much spending on material objects has robbed our children of the humility and gratitude we are trying to teach them. It can also be stressful for that grandparent or aunt whose gift gets “lost in the shuffle” of too many presents leaving them feeling unappreciated or unrecognized.
While spending some amount of money on gifts for children is inevitable and even good, perhaps we need to reconsider gift giving among adults. Many families have remedied this issue by picking names out of a hat and buying only one adult gift per year. While this system works well for some families, it’s not the complete solution for others. Discuss with family members if gift giving among adults is even necessary at all. Consider giving gift certificates for babysitting, help with backyard clean up, foot rubs, dinner out on you, dog sitting/walking, taxi service for grandma etc. Your imagination and talents are the only limits to these gifts. Especially if you or members of your family are on tight budgets, giving gifts of yourself and your time is much less stressful and usually much appreciated.
MAKE SANE AND THOUGHTFUL TRAVEL PLANS
Families, especially dysfunctional ones, can be what psychotherapists call enmeshed. This means that people are over involved in each other’s lives to the extent that it is unhealthy, unnecessary and stressful. Enmeshment is unhealthy in that it blurs the boundaries between one family member and another. Examples of this could be the adult daughter who calls her mother every day even though there is no real reason for this, nothing important is said, and most of what is talked about is gossip or trivia. Mother and daughter see themselves as an extension of the other and therefore feel that constant contact is necessary and individuality might even be “dangerous” to their relationship. Another example pertaining to the holidays would be family who insist on staying in one house for the holiday even though it is crowded, intense and family relations are strained by the close proximity. This type of family mistakes proximity for emotional closeness. Consider getting a hotel room nearby the family home. Consider NOT staying with your alcoholic sister and give yourself an “out” when things get uncomfortable by leaving and going to your own “safe haven”. If you are an adult traveling to visit your family of origin, with or without your own children, think about renting a car of your own even if you are flying to your destination. This gives you some freedom from the intensity of family gatherings and lessens the dependency. When traveling to visit family over the holidays, remember how old you are and consider how old you act or how old you feel when you are back in the “family soup”. Stress is actually reduced when these ages are congruent.
REMEMBER THE MEANING OF THE SEASON
What can be worse than buying presents you can’t afford, traveling to destinations where you are overcrowded and uncomfortable, losing your individuality and participating in planned chaos? Not knowing why you’re doing it! Whether you are a Christian, Jew, Pagan or Naturalist, this season does have meaning. Not being connected to that meaning leads to meaninglessness and that leads to stress, depression and anxiety. This is the season of light, whether it is the light of God manifest on earth through the birth of Christ, the return of the Sun’s light at Winter Solstice or the miracle of light celebrated through Chanukah, light is what the season is about. Consider your own light and how you have used, abused, ignored or celebrated it this past year. Make this season about something personal for you and encourage family to do the same. Empty rituals are just that…empty. Fill the season’s rituals, whatever they may be for you, with light…with your own light. Bring your light to your family, to your celebrations and to your gifts. Refuse to walk blindly through another Holiday Season repeating old mistakes, creating stress, participating in empty rituals, and ignoring your own inner truth. I cannot tell you what your meaning is. That is for you to discover. But the discovery, I guarantee will reduces your stress at the very least and perhaps instill in you the joy that the season is capable of bringing.