The holidays are an exciting time of good cheer, warm family traditions, and spending time with friends. Or, are they?
For many people, the idea of attending large family gatherings, numerous holiday parties, traveling to or from home can produce anxiety and stress. In fact, anxiety and depression are very common during the holiday season. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), three out of four people surveyed reported feeling anxious and/or depressed during the holiday season. The American Psychological Association also notes that the added stress of the holidays will increase a women’s reliance on unhealthy behaviors more often than men, placing them more at risk for effects of stress, both physically and mentally. Juggling work and added family responsibilities, such as planning for holiday gatherings, shopping for gifts and cooking, leave most women feeling like they can’t take time to relax during the crunch to get everything done. Where does this pressure come from?
We might think of the holidays as a magical time, one of rest and relaxation and filled with gratitude for all that we have. Hollywood paints a picture of what our holidays should look like, and there is undue pressure for everything to look as perfect as a Hallmark ad and for each of us to be on our best behavior, as if we are living a 1950s sitcom. Is this ever the reality? Nostalgia returns with every commercial of fireplaces, warm food, snow falling and opening presents on Christmas morning. We long for the day when we can return to the idyllic picture of no responsibility and the proposed meaning of relaxation. How is it possible to relax and enjoy the holidays when they are the busiest and oftentimes most stressful time of the year?
The holidays are a time that uncover memories of the past year or force reflection on the year’s accomplishments and events, either positive or negative. We self-evaluate how we did compared to those around us. Did we reach our goals or fail yet again to complete that pesky end-of-year resolution? The perceived societal pressures that naturally form throughout the holiday season can amplify these memories and expectations for the future. The unrealistic expectations that are placed on oneself can induce a greater anxiety in the present moment. How can it be like that Hallmark card when I feel stretched financially, my family is going through a difficult time, and I simply don’t feel up to the holiday spirit?
Comparing your life to those around you can be an additional, unnecessary stressor that leads to unrealistic expectations for you and your family. It is important to remember that everyone faces challenges throughout the holidays, in varying forms, sizes and intensity. The time of year is not all about carving turkeys, peppermint mochas and spiced candles.
It is easy to feel pulled in many directions over the holidays. Trying to set healthy boundaries in order to reduce stress and exhaustion can be difficult. It is important not to be focused on what the holidays are supposed to be like and how you are supposed to feel. What is the true meaning of the holidays? If you are comparing your experience to a greeting card ideal, you will fall short every time. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Remembering your limits is important. It is impossible to control everything that will happen these next months. Separating what events are in and out of your control is helpful in reducing anxiety and undue pressure to perform to a self-imposed standard.
Keeping in mind the reason for the holidays will refocus the concern and anxiety that you may feel. “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Anxiety and worry places the focus on the wrong issues and causes us to lose sight of the reason for which the holidays exist. Peace of mind is something that everyone desires. We all want to be able to rest and enjoy life, family, friends and work and not get caught up in the drama of the season.
Busyness breeds distraction. It is important that we focus on what the meaning of the season is rather than all the details that provoke anxiety. In the Gospel of Luke, the story of Mary and Martha gives an example of overcoming the self-imposed to-do list. Luke tells us that “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” Who was telling her that the preparations had to be done? Jesus calls Martha to come and spend time with him and break away from the obligations she felt she had to do.
During the upcoming holiday season spend some time reflecting what is truly important. Make a plan to overcome the stress and anxiety easily felt throughout these weeks and let us truly contemplate the words of the Gospel “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” (Luke 12:22)
Jessie Tappel, M.S., graduated from the Institute for the Psychological Sciences and now serves as a clinician for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Arlington as well as the Director for Communications for IPS, a Catholic graduate school for psychology. She is passionate about educating on issues related to Catholicism and Mental Health.