The holiday season is suddenly upon us! As wonderful as this time of year can be, many people suffer from what has come to be known as “holiday stress.”
According to Merriam-Webster Online, a holiday is “a special day of celebration: a day when most people do not have to work.” Stress is defined as “a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life; something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety.” Technically, stress is any circumstance that threatens – or we believe threatens – us physically or emotionally. So, why on earth are these two terms paired? They seem like they should be polar opposites. We are not working; we are celebrating, and presumably spending time with people we like and/or love. Where is the threat to our well-being?
In large part, it is really about the “extra” things that must be accomplished before the holiday arrives, such as shopping for food, getting gifts, deciding which events one can attend, determining which people to invite to our own events. The sheer volume of decisions that must be made taxes our ability to cope. We often feel like we are just managing – we wish we had a little more time, fewer obligations – and then the holidays near and we feel that we simply cannot put even one more obligation, large or small, on our list.
Ah, and therein lies a big part of the problem. Holidays become obligations and not celebrations. They become things we “have to” do, people we “have to” see/invite, gifts we “have to” buy, even if our finances say we cannot. They become times of tremendous guilt.
Each “school” of psychology would provide a slightly different view of what is happening. The Behaviorists would say we are doing these things because we have been rewarded for them in the past. We make a meal and our guests tell us it is delicious and we are wonderful. We buy a gift and someone says, “I love it” and the praise encourages us to repeat the behavior in the future. A Freudian would say our superego, our conscience, is guiding us and we have frustrated our id who simply wants us to have fun. The Cognitive theorist would say that we are doing these things because we have irrational thoughts, such as “If I do not invite the family, then no one will, and we will lose touch with each other and never be like a real family again” or “I have to get the ‘right’ gift. Gifts are a way of showing someone how much we love them.” The Humanist would say we are far too focused on the “should” and not on the want. “I should invite everyone for dinner”, but the “want” may be “I want to sit and talk to everyone instead of serving”.
Each psychological school would also give us some advice for overcoming – or at least reducing – our stress:
The Behaviorists would tell us to reward others for behaviors we want to see in them. Give them a gift, or food, or any reward when they are doing/saying something you want them to do more often. For example, give them a gift when they have said, “Oh, I’m so happy to see you!” This rewards them for seeing you. (As opposed to giving a gift after they say, “What did you get me?” which rewards them for seeking gifts from you).
Freudians would tell us to examine the conflict between our superego and our id, examine its source from our childhood, and allow our ego (our mediator) to engage in a solution that balances obligations with desires. For example, perhaps when we were children, our id wanted to stay home and play with our toys, but our parents (now embedded in our superego) “forced” us to go out to see family and friends. This early conflict resurfaces as holiday stress, based on the anxiety surrounding the guilt of wanting pleasure (to stay home and do what we want) and the fear of displeasing others (represented as our superego in the form of doing what others ask of us).
Cognitive theorists would tell us, as would Humanists, to examine the scripts (the stories) that are part of our thoughts and shoulds. They would encourage us to examine the source of our stress by examining the assumptions that are inherent in the scripts. This requires a bit more explanation. For example, we think we need to invite everyone, and the script includes doing all the cooking ourselves. This feels overwhelming. The stress increases. (1) Is it a person, place or thing stress? Is it the people? Is it the fact that our home is too small to comfortably fit the growing group? Is it financial? Is it due to time constraints? (2) Recognize that each of these questions indicates a different source of stress and, therefore, has a different solution. (3) Be honest with yourself and others so that the stress can be addressed. If we want to see the people, then other options do present themselves. We can say, “We would love to have everyone over, but (insert your reason), does anyone else want to host this year?”, or “How about we go to a restaurant this year?”, or “How about everyone makes some part of the meal this year?” This can be applied to any aspect of the holiday stressors. We can say similar things about gifts: “I would love to get gifts for everyone, but I can’t this year, so how about we do a Secret Santa?”, or “How about we give the gift of spending time together?”, or “Let’s make gifts this year instead of buying them.” If we are stressed about a negative person who we feel we need to include, the one who seems to criticize everyone and everything, we can invoke what I call the “Thumper Rule”. It comes from the Disney movie, Bambi. Thumper tells us, “If you ain’t got something nice to say, don’t say nothing at all.” It seems like wonderful holiday (actually wonderful everyday) advice to me!
We cannot overlook that for some, the stress of the holidays rests in the fact that the holidays exacerbate their loneliness. The holidays lead them to ask such questions as, “What is wrong with me that I never get invited to parties? Why don’t I have a place to go for dinner?” Again, each theory would give us different advice for handling this. Behaviorists would say you should reward someone for including you. A Freudian would encourage you to examine your childhood issues of abandonment. Cognitive theorists would encourage you to examine those irrational thoughts characterized by extremes such as “never”; it is likely that every adult has been invited to at least one party in their lifetime. The Humanist would encourage you to examine your choices and consider options such as choosing to volunteer at a shelter rather than being alone.
But perhaps the best holiday advice I have ever heard came from my grandmother. Every time I visited her, she would exclaim, “Every time I see you it is a holiday!” Wow, suddenly holiday stress was gone; one did not have to see her on the holiday itself. She made every visit a holiday visit. By doing so, she enriched every moment spent with family, a very valuable lesson indeed.
Diane Urban, PhD
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