It was getting dangerously close to Christmas. I had all but finished my shopping for the season when I realized that I had one more gift to buy. I knew I couldn’t order it online because it wouldn’t arrive on time, so my thoughts turned to how to navigate the stores with other last-minute shoppers. I dreaded the prospect of full parking lots, busy aisles and long check-out lines, and lamented not finishing my gift buying earlier. There was no choice, however; I had to go. I don’t know what it is about shopping that close to Christmas, but the atmosphere seemed to be charged with holiday stress rather than holiday joy. When I arrived at the store, shoppers were rushing in and out, elbowing me out of the way—almost battering me with the gifts they had so lovingly chosen for their family. The drive over to this part of town didn’t help either. It was almost as if driving a mini-van was license for some to weave through traffic like the Apocalypse was here, and that the only thing standing between them and their empty cupboards at home was the last loaf of bread being sold at the store. This is where I started to get stressed and thought to myself, “Isn’t this supposed to be the best time of the year?” On that day, it didn’t feel like it.
How many of us experience an increased level of stress or even anxiety during the holidays? There are many reasons this could be the case: Trying to balance success at work and fitting in an abundance of errands, buying the “perfect” gift, lack of money/resources, more time with family or reminders of family losses (death or absence of a loved one).
The holidays, for some, equates more to holiday stress than holiday joy. Stress often leads to anxiety, a natural response to uncomfortable situations. Anxiety isn’t necessarily bad; it can cause us to act in ways that solve our problems. If experienced in excess or handled in an unhealthy manner, though, anxiety has the potential to cause mental health issues as well as ruin experiences that could bring us joy.
Given that holiday stress has the potential to turn into serious anxiety, and that anxiety is the most common mental health issue adults face (according to SAMHSA), we need to not let holiday stress turn into a holiday anxiety disorder!
The question, then, is how do we do this? How do we not let holiday worries and tasks become more than we can bear? Focusing on holiday rituals can help. Rituals are similar to traditions, in that they are actions or behavior we routinely participate in that have meaning to us. In his article “The Value of Rituals in Family Life,” Evan Imber-Black (2012) pinpoints five purposes behind family rituals. These can help us refocus our celebrations, and perhaps aid in letting go of unnecessary seasonal stress.
Relating – We create rituals during the holiday season to connect with others. It is easy to forget that the most important part of the holidays is being with the ones we love. Plan simple activities or gatherings that allow you and your loved ones to be together. Years after the wrapping paper has been thrown away, children often remember what you did together as a family more than what was under the tree. A ritual my family had when I was younger was cutting down our own Christmas tree. I am sure my siblings don’t remember every Christmas gift they received, but they do remember the year the Christmas tree we were cutting down fell on and trapped our youngest brother. This ritual has created humorous and loving memories for our family over the years.
Changing – Holiday rituals can highlight or ease us into changes in our family. As children grow older, we might celebrate this by having them participate in different and meaningful ways during the festivities. Perhaps give them tasks you normally took on, like organizing a game or making a treat. When children turn into young adults, some serve LDS missions. To mark this transition in life, ask them to prepare a traditional holiday meal from where they served. This allows them to participate and share a significant part of their life as they grow older.
Healing – During the holidays, we often remember those who have passed away or who are not present. It can also invoke memories of better times or more comfortable circumstances. This can be a stressful and painful experience. Creating rituals to honor and remember those who are gone can be healing and freeing. One family watches a home video of their son and shares memories about him as they sit together. This allows them to celebrate his memory and gives him a place in their family rituals. This family is able to heal and feels free to live even though their son is gone.
Believing – All too often, the meanings behind the holidays we celebrate are forgotten as we become focused on tasks, decorations, and planned events. In order to decrease anxiety and stress, make an effort to remember why you choose to celebrate this holiday. Deliberate attention on creating rituals that honor our beliefs helps us to refocus on what is most important. Perhaps it will help simplify our celebrations, ease the task load, and teach younger family members the reason we celebrate.
Celebrating – The holidays we choose to celebrate show what we value and who we are. They connect us with family members and others in the community. Choose to celebrate in ways that address the previously mentioned areas—creating relationships, changing, healing, and believing. If you are in a bicultural or interfaith family, discuss together how to share rituals that are important to each person so that all can feel included and connected in celebrating. If we say to ourselves after the holidays are over, “I thought that was supposed to be more fun,” then we might want to re-evaluate how we celebrate this time of year.
While it is impossible to turn off the traffic, crowds and even some of the busyness, it is possible to find holiday joy in a potentially stressful season. The tasks on our to-do lists can be part of family fun, but if they take away joy and create imposing anxiety instead, perhaps we could examine the purpose of our holidays. Let go of holiday stress and embrace healthy, simple and meaningful rituals.
Written by Triston Morgan, PhD LMFT
Originally published by Utah Valley Health and Wellness