For many years, newspaper editors would contact me in December about writing an article about “Holiday Blues”. I would generate my usual list of suspects, and then add a few new features to make it fresh. Though annual events, the holidays in particular lead to a variety of special issues. This year I will take a more optimistic perspective, calling it Holiday Challenges, rather than the more tradition title.
I am going to summarize a number of issues that can create both visible and invisible impact. The reason to discuss them is to give individuals more clarity, since labeling factors can make things more manageable. So, what makes the holidays so potentially problematic?
Let’s start with the extra demands. We know that stress reactions occur when individuals have to adapt quickly to multiple tasks within small windows of time. Home demands can include wanting to cook special meals, bake cookies, or prepare for parties or guests. Increased time with family can be mixed blessings. While good to see family we haven’t seen for a time, too much “togetherness” can lead to irritability, or raise long-standing hurts. Those who have school-age children may feel pressure to satisfy their kids’ “wish lists”, or the parents may just feel guilty that they could not afford everything they would have wanted to offer. Those with teenagers may experience their children’s emotional distance as they separate psychologically, or they may sense their teenager’s boredom or rebellion.
Some people cannot travel to see friends or family, either because of poor physical health or limited finances. Hallmark cards surround us with lovely scenes, families around the table, warmth of the fire. These images are tantalizing and hopeful, but the reality often does not measure up to these idyllic descriptions. The holidays can be unusually difficult for those who are single, separated, divorced, or widowed. The loss during the year of any close family or friends can be acutely noticed; for example, people are often overheard saying, “this is my first Christmas without him (her)”; also, those that have sold their homes, or downsized, or experienced job loss will be strongly affected by this time of year.
I know a number of people who are exhausted from attending all their gatherings. They may eat or drink too much, stay out too late, and generally tax their overall energy levels. Remember, good events can be as stressful as “bad” events in terms of having to adapt and utilize effort. Of course, individual vary in what each experiences as stressful. If one tends to perfectionism, the holidays may have higher impact.
Some more invisible stressors can be experienced by those who are not Christian, or those who are not religious at all. It can feel alienating to be surrounded by holiday music for the four weeks from Thanksgiving, not to mention everyone saying “Merry Christmas”, if one is feeling on the periphery. The wisest thing is probably to join in the spirit, and appreciate the sentiment, but not all individuals have the capacity to do that.
Let’s not overlook work issues. There are some service providers who have much greater demands at this time of year. Postal workers, policemen, airport personnel, and shopkeepers are just a few who have increased workloads. Employers may have year-end statements to complete, performance evaluations to render, and additional orders to fill, while still attending to family demands at home.
There are potential stressors from a variety of sources around the holidays. It is obviously a time of considerable joy and reflection for so many. It is perhaps easy to overlook the compounding effects of both external and internal factors that can lead to fatigue, feeling off-balance, or moodiness. With increased awareness, hopefully you are able to be somewhat selective in your efforts, acknowledge changes in your life with optimism, and experience the warmth and generosity of spirit that the season offers. May you have meaningful, satisfying days!
Jayson DeLeaumount, DPT