(This article originally appeared in the December 19/26, 2010, issue of Christian Standard.)
By Larry W. Bailey
How’s your holiday going? For many, it’s more stress than celebration.
At Christmastime, the laughter of the “Ho, Ho, Ho” may give way to the pressure of the “Go, Go, Go.” Fantasies of a “silent night” turn into the noisy bustle of crowded department stores. For some, the jingling of Christmas bells yields to the jangling of nerves. We may find ourselves moving from holiday dreams to horrible nightmares, from anticipation to aggravation, from sugar plums to sour grapes, from happiness to a state of stress.
Principles to Help Us
It doesn’t have to be this way. While it is impossible to eliminate the many stresses of this great season, several principles can help us minimize stress and experience a more excellent holiday season.
Express your concerns, ideas, and tensions. As the pressures of time and responsibilities mount up during the holidays, it is important to find constructive, positive ways to express our anxieties and thoughts to others. Tensions will find some ways to express themselves—if not through words or appropriate actions, then maybe through irritability, depression, bodily aches and pains, or striking out at others.
It is crucial to share emotions and worries with significant others who love and understand you. Remember the psalmist, who gives us an excellent example of verbalizing a wide range of emotions, from ecstasy to deep discouragement.
It is better to have expression rather than repression that leads to depression.
Examine your expectations and priorities. Do a reality check on what you expect of yourself and of others during the holiday season. Unrealistic expectations can only result in frustration and disappointment.
It is also beneficial to think about our priorities since we cannot spend as much time and energy as we may wish with people we care about, or accomplish all the activities we see as valuable. For example, it may be better to spend less time pursuing the “ideal gift” for someone we love, and more time with the loved one. Encouragement to examine one’s self is found throughout the Scriptures.
How we think about events and activities of the holidays will determine our emotional state more than will the actual events themselves.
Exercise. During the hustle and bustle of the season, we often discover there is little time available for physical exercise. Running around to numerous shops at the mall does not qualify as a stress-reducing workout, nor does cleaning the house or organizing the garage.
We all need to find a physical activity that allows us to “get the juices flowing” and relieve tension. Taking a brisk walk, jogging, playing sports, or working out in a gym brings enjoyable stress reduction.
Devoting some time each day to exercise results in greater productivity and emotional ease during the remainder of the day.
Extend yourself. It is tempting to become preoccupied with my schedule, my shopping needs, and my time demands. Such self-absorption and egocentricity increases one’s level of worry and sense of pressure.
A well-documented stress-buster is to reach out to others in affirming, affectionate, helpful ways. Psychologists have found that people leading fulfilling lives are invariably involved in concerns “outside their own skin.” In extending ourselves to others we find a deeper, more fulfilling joy within ourselves. It is then that we experience the joy of giving and come to a better understanding of the idea that began with Jesus:
It is more blessed to give than to receive.
Exclude excesses. The holiday season can become a time of too much activity, too much eating, and too much alcohol. Such excesses may lead to feelings of being frenzied, fat, and fuzzy-headed.
Obviously, this pattern of behavior is not only unproductive, but counterproductive. We are likely to find ourselves being impatient, irritable, and irrational with those we care about the most. We need to carve out some quiet time for reflection on the reason for the season, and develop a deeper appreciation for the positive aspects of this special time of the year.
Genuine joy in our relationships and activities will be greatly enhanced and better remembered through moderation.
Explore new options. Most families develop important traditions relating to their approach to and celebration of the holidays, and this is good. However, there may be great value in considering some new ways to cope with the challenges and festivities of the season.
Conversations among your family and friends may reveal some “annual frustrations” with the old ways, and generate some refreshing ideas about new possibilities. Continue and enrich activities that have been found to be meaningful, and explore alternatives to those that have served their purpose.
The intrigue and uncertainty of a new adventure can add excitement to the holidays.
Exhale as much as you inhale. During the holiday season there will be numerous occasions for us to catch our breath, hold our breath, wait with bated breath, or experience a breathtaking moment. We may do a lot of inhaling that is not followed by sufficient exhaling.
Moving from one breathtaking moment to another brings shallow breathing and develops tension. As hard as it may seem, we need regular moments of complete relaxation in which we fully exhale. Take advantage of times you’re waiting for someone or making a transition from one activity to another.
Use “idle” moments productively to breathe out and relax.
Principles That Helped Them!
The biblical accounts of the “first Christmas season” show these principles at work in the lives of the main characters. Mary clearly expressed her confusion to the angel (“How can this be?”), and she visited Elizabeth for an extended period of mutual support and encouragement. Joseph rearranged his priorities in obedience to God’s guidance, and he and Mary were physically active as they journeyed from Nazareth to Bethlehem. In the midst of the demanding birth scene (e.g., a newborn child, the atmosphere of a barn, magnificent reports from shepherds, uncertainties), Mary was calm and reflective as she “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.”
Hopefully, applying the above seven principles of stress-reduction and considering the events of the “first Christmas season” will help us experience the full joy of our Savior’s birth and life and prepare us for a new year that honors him.
Larry W. Bailey works as a clinical psychologist at AdvanceMed Hanford in Richland, Washington, and adjunct professor at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington.