Happy Holidays!” “Merry Christmas!” The cheerful greetings we use during this festive month indicate the lighthearted celebration of our nation’s biggest holiday. However, these salutations often belie the true state of affairs. Are the holidays a time of rejoicing, gratitude and giving? Or, are they a time of pressure, stress and expectations? This season provides a break, a distraction, from the rhythm of life. That break can be a joyous occasion, or it can be a time that is dreaded and endured. One thing is for sure, the holidays can bring additional stress to what, for many of us, is an already stressful life.
Stress — we all have it in our lives, and we all struggle to find ways to manage or cope with it. Stress cannot be avoided; in fact some of it is necessary for a healthy existence. The key is learning to minimize the negative stress in our lives and to better manage the stress that is there. Let’s take a look at what stress is, where it comes from and how to manage it so that it is not managing you … hopefully making your holidays happier.
Positive stress helps us to meet the challenges in life and to maximize our performance. On a basic level, stress is physiological arousal. It is that “flight or fight” response in our brain that is necessary for survival. When we encounter a threat, the brain sends signals throughout the body to mobilize us to deal with that threat by either fighting against it or fleeing from it. That is the good news.
The bad news is that our brains are not very good at distinguishing a real threat from an imagined one — a threat to life from a threat to comfort and serenity. One aspect of stress management is learning to better make that distinction.
Some threats that we encounter are to our physical being, such as a dangerous animal, an assailant or a car speeding toward us. Some threats have to do with our success, such as a deadline for a project, an exam or a list of things to accomplish. Other threats are to our self-esteem and our relationships. These would include the fear of failure and rejection, wondering if a performance will meet another’s expectations or a relationship conflict or disagreement. All of these threats are a normal part of life, and they all trigger the stress response. While we cannot avoid them, we can respond to them and manage them more effectively.
The majority of stress management techniques are aimed at our physical response or lifestyle choices. The following are just some examples:
• Exercise regularly, 30 minutes five times a week is recommended.
• Eat healthy (proteins and vegetables), avoid excessive sugar and don’t overdo comfort foods.
• Get enough sleep (seven to eight hours a night, on a schedule, practice good sleep hygiene).
• Don’t rely on alcohol, drugs or food to ease stress and don’t over use caffeine.
• Breathe well. Slow deep breaths that expand the diaphragm help to fully oxygenate the blood, which reduces the physiological stress response. Shallow chest breathing can add to the feeling of being stressed.
From a lifestyle perspective, the following are some suggestions:
• Manage your time wisely. Give yourself adequate time for a task. Keep to a reasonable schedule.
• Make time for hobbies and other interests.
• Learn to say “no” to some things in order to not become overloaded.
• Spend time with people you enjoy and love.
The above suggestions can be a challenge to practice during any season of life. They can be even more of a challenge during the holiday season when additional demands, requests or opportunities are upon us. The obvious answer is to not take on too much, to not become overloaded or over-scheduled, to be able to say “no.” Yet this can often be very difficult to do.
Why is it that the holidays present a unique and sometimes more difficult challenge to living a balanced and not over stressed life? The problem and answer is all in your head! Seriously, the problem is mostly about expectations; the expectations of others and the expectations we have of ourselves. Dealing with such expectations in our thinking and in the context of our relationships is an often overlooked aspect of stress management.
Much of our stress in life is not about survival. It is about expectations. Each of us lives in relationships with other people who tend to have expectations of us. We are faced with the choice of meeting those expectations or disappointing them. Further, we also live with our own expectations of ourselves, which we can either meet or disappoint. What accounts for the majority of stress in our relationships is the need to meet expectations, either of others or ourselves. The pressure to meet an expectation triggers the same flight or fight mechanism as a legitimate threat to our survival does. Let us consider this idea of expectations more fully.
Consider for the moment the expectations you have for yourself. If a group of people made a list of their expectations, some things on the lists would be similar –– be on time, get along with and please others, keep a clean house, look good, have a great family, have it all together in life.
Some would be more specific to the person, such as getting out of debt, securing the promotion, buying a larger house. Any of these things can be good things. But why do we want them, or expect them of ourselves? At its root level, it is about our self-concept. It is about what we think about ourselves, the value we think we have. We have such expectations to have a sense of worth and significance. Also consider the expectations that others tend to have of you. We are expected to be agreeable, to not disappoint, to spend time with others, to do tasks for and with others, to attend gatherings and events, to provide for the needs of others or to not cause worry or stress for others. There are loving motives for meeting any of these expectations.
But how often do we find ourselves trying to meet the expectation of another not out of love, but out of fear? What is it that we fear? Again, at its core level we fear not being acceptable to others, not being liked or valued if we were to disappoint someone. So we are sometimes focused on meeting the needs of others in order to maintain a sense of worth and significance.
It is this desire to be viewed by others as having worth or significance, or to view yourself in a specific way that is at the root of most of the stress in life over which you have control. If I choose to live in a way that is centered around gaining or maintaining a sense of value and worth, I will often find myself stressed due to being overloaded, saying “yes” when I should say “no,” or having resentment over what is asked of me. It is about fear of disappointing others or my own self.
So what does this all have to do with the holidays? Let me suggest that the holidays at the same time intensifies this problem and could be the solution to this problem. The holidays are a time of increased demands on our time, energy and finances as others will ask and expect things that normally are not expected at other times of the year. We can feel torn over which gatherings we will attend … will we decline one or try to make them all fit in just to not disappoint someone? We feel pressure over finding the right gift to give not only our family members but the other people in our lives so that no one is disappointed.
Then we also have the expectations we have of ourselves. I need to have the house perfectly clean, make the perfect meal, have my children perfectly behaved (or nearly perfect). Why so much pressure to perform? Internally, I measure my worth and significance based upon my performance. I have to do well so that I can feel good about myself.
If the holidays create additional stress due to increased demands and expectations, how can they also be the solution to the problem? The answer lies in the “reason for the season.” “Christ’s Mass” is the time of year that we commemorate God sending His Son into the world in the form of a man for the world’s salvation.
If you and I could truly internalize the value and significance that God places in us, we would be better able to let go of trying to get that from other people. We would be freer to do the best that we could, to live within healthy limits, to say “no” to too much and to live with the disappointment that can come in relationships.
So go ahead and have a “happy holiday.” Participate in the traditions, the activities, the time with loved ones and the giving of gifts. At the same time, keep all of this activity in perspective. Christmas is about love, joy and forgiveness. This could very well be the best stress management strategy you employ all season. Merry Christmas to you all.
Dr. Thomas Barbian is the executive director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies.