by Kenneth Phelps
‘Tis the season to be stressed?
The holiday season is upon us, predictably filled with both excitement and trepidation. Though we hope Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s bring plenty of “jolly,” many individuals are filled with mounting stress. While some stress (distress) is problematic and unwanted, such as loss or financial hardship, other stress (eustress) is characterized by anticipatory anxiety and excitement, such as having many friends over to one’s home. Regardless of the source of stress, the commercialized buzz in the fall and winter months serve as a perfect petri dish for the virus of stress. The visual of a virus is used purposefully, as stress can have debilitating effects on our immune system, mental health and many chronic medical conditions. While stress may be inevitable, our faith offers a useful remedy to the hustle and bustle.
1. Live in the moment.
Individuals rarely live in the here and now. Our thought patterns and conversations frequently exist in the past and future. The self-dialogue of shoulds — “I shouldn’t have done that. I should have known better. I should be a better hostess. I shouldn’t have spent so much money.” — is often aimed at instilling guilt and shame about our past choices rather than facilitating personal growth. Future-oriented self-talk is problematic as well, filled with catastrophizing and hypothesizing about what might be — “What if we don’t raise enough money? What if we can’t stay for the whole program? What if others judge our appearance? What if we don’t complete the entire to-do list?” Ruminating on the past often leads to symptoms of depression, while fixating on the perceived future leads to anxiety.
One remedy to this conundrum is to purposefully live in the present moment. Present living can instill peaceful living. John 14:27 reads, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
On a daily basis, we can refocus our attention to our environment, taking an observational stance informed by a grateful, peaceful gaze. What does this look like? When eating homemade cookies, take time and really taste the cookies. While sitting by the fire, notice the sensation of the heat on your skin. While navigating an illness, draw your attention to the family, friends or healthcare providers standing with you to fight the battle. Undoubtedly, we all find ourselves fueled by multitasking and media, rather than tapping into the brain’s natural need for present living.
2. Take a nonjudgmental stance.
Our references to the past and future are typically not just a recounting of events, but often laden with judgment (remember those “shoulds” mentioned earlier?). Judgment commonly creeps in during the holidays. This can take the form of saying we are “a failure, useless or unlovable.” Even in small ways, a statement of “I’m so stupid” after burning the holiday casserole enters our ears as quickly as it leaves our mouths, chipping away at our self-worth. Our human mind is wired to compare our circumstances with others. It becomes easy to slide into judgmental if/then statements — “If I didn’t eat so much at Thanksgiving, I wouldn’t be so fat.”
We also slip into judgment of others, which our Heavenly Father compels us to avoid. Matthew 7:1-2 reads, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give with be the measure you get.” Instead of judging the character of ourselves or others, a more useful technique is describing behavior. For instance, “I’m so stupid” might be replaced with “I burned that casserole; that happens.” Likewise, “They are a waste of space” might be replaced with “I don’t understand their decisions and choices.” These simple semantic swaps can be unburdening and promote a culture of compassion, which is unquestionably needed during stressful times.
3. Create rituals of connection and remembrance.
We do not navigate life in a bubble, but are surrounded by a larger community that craves connection. Our individualistic perspectives can break down our innate need for attachment. During the holidays, people need people more than ever before. Those who have lost family members through death or broken bonds often feel immense emotional pain and loneliness this time of year.
To overcome isolation and loss, small rituals can make a large impact. Examples might include: creating a gratitude list that can be shared at holiday dinners or posted at home; lighting a deceased family member’s favorite candle scent; listening to treasured holiday music; reading Scripture or stories with children to celebrate Jesus’s birth; singing a Christmas carol each evening; having a tacky sweater gathering; getting new pajamas for Christmas Eve; decorating the tree with treasures from the past; volunteering at a local soup kitchen; adopting a family in need.
Ask yourself these questions: What are my most cherished memories from past years? How can I continue these rituals in new and creative ways? How can I nurture my relationships during this holiday season? What would those who cannot be with me this holiday season want for me? Being purposeful with our schedules can infuse our routine with meaning and purpose.
Ultimately, people likely fall into two groups: 1) the “I love everything about the holidays” group who are obsessed with all things pumpkin, red/green/gold and garland and 2) the “I can’t wait for this to be over” group who are filled with bah-humbug, seeing more of themselves in Scrooge’s crankiness than Clark Griswald’s enthusiasm. I’m unsure that any of the abovementioned strategies will alter your current classification; however, my hope is the holidays will become a time to more fully connect with your faith and those most central in your life. Sadly, many have experienced tragedy during the holidays. The sights, smells, and sounds of Christmas bring forth a tsunami of emotional triggers, leading to exhaustion and uncertainty. Perhaps those of us fortunate enough to fall in group one can empathize with those in group two, ensuring they feel seen, heard and loved in Christ. They will know we are Christians by our love; by our compassion; by our peace; by our connection.
KENNETH PHELPS is an associate clinical professor of neuropsychiatry and behavioral science at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, specializing in the treatment of couples and families who are traversing illness or disability. He is a member of Shandon Presbyterian Church, a loving husband to his wife Lauren and a dedicated father to his children, Ruth and Wilder.