How do you answer that question? Are the holidays a time of rejoicing, gratitude, and giving? Or, are they a time of pressure, stress, and expectations? The holiday 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. What we can do is learn to minimize the negative stress in our lives and to better manage the stress that is there. In this article, I will take a look at what stress is, where it comes from, and how to manage it so that it is not managing us; hoping to make the holidays more happy.
As I said, we all need a certain amount of stress. 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 God given 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 my life from a threat to my comfort and serenity. An 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, a list of things to accomplish. Other threats are to our our self esteem and our relationships. These would include the fear of failure and rejection, will my performance 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.
If you were to do an internet search on stress management, the majority of stress management techniques are aimed at our physical response or lifestyle choices.
The following are just some examples from such a search.
- Exercise regularly, 30 minutes 5 times a week is recommended.
- Eat healthy (proteins and vegetables), avoid excessive sugar and don’t overdo comfort foods.
- Get enough sleep (7-8 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. The holidays are a time of life 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 relationship with other people. These others 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 flight 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 of 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 of those expectations would be specific to the person (get out of debt, get ahead in my job, acquire some new possession, become more physically, spiritually, or relationally healthy). 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. More on this in a minute.
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 sometimes are focused on meeting to 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 myself in such a way that is at the root of most of the stress in life over which we 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.
I don’t need to tell you this, but the holidays are a time of increased demands on our time, energy, and finances. Others will ask and expect things of us 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. Much of the stress of the holidays comes from not wanting to disappoint someone, or the pressure to meet the expectations of others. I want others to have a positive view of me so I can feel good about me.
Then we also have the expectations we have of ourselves.
I need to give the perfect gift, 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, you might ask? The answer lies in the “reason for the season.” Christmas has traditionally been a religious holiday from the Christian tradition. It 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. This is probably best described in the following biblical passage: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). This is a famous passage of scripture, probably well known to most of you. I think it has a specific application to the matter of stress.
If much of the stress that one lives with in life is relationally based, and is about meeting expectations (of myself or others) so as to achieve or maintain a sense of worth, then this passage is really the answer. Why did God send his son? It wasn’t because we were such good and perfect people, that he just couldn’t resist. No, it was actually the opposite. He saw a world steeped in sin, people who tried as they might and in their best efforts could not live a sinless life. Imperfect humans who couldn’t meet expectations. God loved them because he created them. He said that we have tremendous value, worth, and significance to Him apart from anything we do. No one gives his life for something he doesn’t value immensely.
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. Maybe focusing on the “reason for the season” could actually help to relieve some of the stress of it.
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.
This article was written for the Columbia Metropolitan Magazine.