Dealing with Holiday Stress

christmas tree
Source: Conrad Kuiper

The holiday season is a time for fun and pleasure. However, it often becomes a source of stress and anxiety for many people.

In the past several decades I lived in six different cultures where I had the opportunity to celebrate Christmas and the New Year. In my native country of Iran, I celebrated the Naw-Ruz (New Day) which coincides with the spring equinox on March 21st. As a gift, children receive shiny, new coins or crisp banknotes depending on their age. I’m lucky that I belong to a large family (9 children) and my parents couldn’t spoil us with too much shopping and gifts. I was brought up in a frugal household.

Later when I moved to Italy, I celebrated the Catholic Christmas and New Year’s Eve. In Rome I witness the glimpse of commercialism as people got stressed out over shopping and food preparation. An anecdote that comes to mind is when one night my brother and I went for a New Year’s Eve dinner at a friend’s house in Rome. At midnight, there were no city buses running. So we had to walk home. However, we had forgotten an old custom practiced in Rome (and in some places in Italy), which consists in throwing your old things out the window to symbolize your readiness to accept the New Year. So, my brother and I had to duck and zig-zag our way through old furniture and other discarded items.

In 1984 I moved to Canada where I got to know Protestant’s version of Christmas. There are more similarities than differences among how Europeans and North Americans celebrate the holiday seasons. In Canada I saw the influence of consumerism during Christmas time even more.

Later I moved back to Europe and spend few years in Barcelona, Spain; then moved to Czech Republic; Malmo, Sweden; and then back to Bilbao, Spain again. And finally, now that I spend time between both Spain and Canada I can see how both Europeans and North Americans get stressed out over the holidays.

Now, about holiday stress, there are three points to remember:

  1. Unrealistic Expectations. Most people have a romantic view of the holiday season. They expect everything go well. However with so many factors involved there is always a high chance that something goes wrong. Despite all the preparation and good will, quite often expectations go unmet: meals don’t turn out right; children misbehave; some family members bicker; gifts are not received as fondly as we expected and eating and drinking too much leaves some people unsatisfied.
  2. Wanting to enjoy it. When people decide to have fun, a paradoxical effect may occur. The more you want to enjoy yourself, the less satisfaction you get. The reason is that pleasure becomes truly pleasurable when it is not planned: when it is spontaneous. However if you plan it too much and really decide to have a good time, you will be disappointed. Mainly because things will never turn out the way you planned it. This becomes exacerbated by the social pressure. If you don’t smile you may be considered a bore or a Grinch! We are pressured by social expectation and advertising that we must be jolly. Depressed or lonely people see others getting together. They feel they miss on something special and fantasize about their ideal holidays, and are convinced that everybody else is enjoying a great time but them. The result is that depressed people suffer a great deal during the holiday seasons.
  3. Falling into the trap of consumerism. Advertising also creates an artificial sense of happiness: “you can be happy only if you buy our products!” People get carried away with holiday shopping. They get stressed out finding the ideal gift and almost always overspend. Then, when all is over, they get stressed out when their bills arrive.

Here are 3 Tips for having a more enjoyable time during the holidays:

  1. Have realistic expectations. Remember that holiday season is a stressful time. Of course you can make it fun but keep it simple. Stay with you budget. Slow down. Leave time for rest. Christmas will be fun but there’ll be times when it’ll seem boring. People may annoy you. It will never live up to the rose picture the advertising makes it.
  2. Instead of looking forward to enjoying it, be curious about it. Think what you can learn from it this year. Instead of deciding to enjoy it, plan on how you could do some service to others. Focus on service and enjoy the joyfulness that brings with it. Remember that when you plan pleasure you turn it into its opposite.
  3. When you shop and make preparations, remember that this is a religious celebration. Christmas is actually Christ’s Mass. It’s annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ. If you don’t share the same beliefs, at least keep in mind the spiritual component of it. Don’t let all the material part of it overshadow the true purpose of celebrating togetherness, giving and serving others.

These tips also apply to any major celebration in our lives. The rule of thumb is to keep it simple, frugal and flexible. Let me close with a quote from Lao Tse:

Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being. Patient with both friends and enemies, you accord with the way things are.

Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.