Coping with the Stress of the Holiday Season

Twenty years ago this Thanksgiving, I was the on-call chaplain for a small community acute-care hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, where I was attending seminary.  Along with several other seminarians who hadn’t traveled home for the holiday, I had been invited to the home of one of my professors.  My classmates and I went about preparing the traditional dinner with the professor and her spouse, all the while chatting, laughing, and enjoying our time together.  Then my pager beeped and I had to drive back to the hospital, where I spent part of the evening sitting with a man whose elderly father was comatose and would soon die.  Possibly for that man but definitely for me, it made for a very sobering juxtaposition, one I’ll never forget: crisis and stress do not respect holidays.

While that Thanksgiving was somewhat unusual, for many of us this season still can be a stressful experience.  Even if we do not experience a specific trauma or crisis situation, we still might feel the weight of stress on us, and therefore holidays can be difficult to live through.  Some of the reasons we might feel this way could include:

  • We are separated from our family and friends, and we feel a longing to be with them, or a nostalgia for a time gone by;
  • We may be spending time with family, and yet we wish that our relationships with various members were less tense, less conflictual, less awkward, or somehow different;
  • We may have to work on the holiday and resent not having the time “off” like our co-workers do;
  • We may have high expectations of what the holiday should be like, which causes the holiday we are living now to look “blah” or lesser by comparison;
  • The holiday may be close to a recent loss or grief, and so it is tinged with sadness, anger, and the many other feelings that come with that loss; or
  • The holiday may have had meaning and value for us once, but it has lost its significance for us over time.

Obviously, in our modern world with all of its demands and pressures, we can’t eliminate stress and crisis from our lives, even for the holidays.  Yet there are a few tips that we can follow to help make the holidays a less stressful and even more pleasurable season:

Savor, but don’t overdo: This can be very challenging, especially at a holiday that emphasizes feasting (like Thanksgiving).  Perhaps, like me, you grew up hearing that it’s important to clean your plate, and at family gatherings you’re inclined to heap your plate full, only to regret it later.  I’ve been inspired by the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh and the American essayist Annie Dillard to employ a different strategy this year, and I invite you to join me.  I’m going to serve myself small portions of the foods I want to eat and then eat what is on my plate slowly, allowing myself time to taste each morsel fully.  My goal is to taste all of the flavors in my food, and give thanks for each bite.  Then, if I’m still hungry, I can serve myself another small portion.  Nhất Hạnh calls it “mindful eating,” and Dillard writes of a grateful vision that can penetrate deeply into one’s soup bowl.  From their example, I want to remind myself that the true measure of my thanksgiving comes in quality, not necessarily in quantity.

Give yourself structure for enjoyment: If you have outside pressures weighing on you—exams, papers, job responsibilities, family obligations—see if you can structure your holiday so that, if you must attend to them, they are contained within a certain time frame.  While Ernest Hemingway is not always a good example of self-restraint, he did have a regular discipline.  He wrote every morning; once he had completed his writing for the day, he moved away from his typewriter and did not go back to it until the next morning.  When he was working, he worked; when he was playing, he played (sometimes too hard, but that’s another story).  If you must work during the holidays, then work; but give yourself time and permission to relax and enjoy the people around you and the occasion you are sharing.

“Right-size” your expectations: If we expect that the holiday is going to be the BEST HOLIDAY EVER, we’re likely to be a little disappointed.  Rather than setting myself up for a disappointment, perhaps I can hope instead for an enjoyable evening… and then maybe I’ll see in retrospect that it was in fact the best yet.  Similarly, if my relationship with another family member is strained, I may want to reconcile with her or him at the holiday get-together—but I need to remind myself that I only have control over how I act.  Rather than expecting the perfect restoration of relationships, I can hope instead that I will reach out to that person with a sincere expression of my desire to reconcile.  If she or he reaches out to me in return, then that’s icing on a very delicious cake!

Set up your safety net: If you anticipate that you’re going to be in a social situation that is anxiety-producing, make a covenant in advance with a trusted friend or confidant: someone you can “check in” with, so that you can debrief, get advice, and receive support.  We all need people who will let us vent and offer us some caring reality-testing.  Find your people and let them know that you’ll be calling.

Balance revelry with routine: Here I don’t mean “routine” in the sense of “boring and monotonous.”  Instead, I think of “routine” from its origin word, which is related to “route” or road.  Our bodies adjust to a certain road or rhythm of rest, nutrition, sacred time, and exercise, and they function best when we don’t veer wildly off our roads.  A little side-trip of festivity can be wonderful—a later night than normal in the company of friends, for example—but it is important to find our way back to our regular road and restore the balance.  So don’t neglect your rest and exercise, and maintain your regular spiritual practices: prayer, meditation, reading sacred texts, reaching out to those who need help.

As the saying goes, in life there are no guarantees.  Yet I hope you’ll find these tips to be reliable and helpful guides during this holiday time.  May these days be filled with meaning, blessing, and joy for you and all whom you love.

—Peter Yuichi Clark

Associate Professor of Pastoral Care

2 thoughts on “Coping with the Stress of the Holiday Season

  1. Thanks Dr. Clark! Wonderful tips. May I humbly add that I was reminded after spending 8 hours trying to drive out of the Bay Area last Wednesday afternoon (because of Thanksigivng traffic, transmission problems, an 80-mile tow, and a switch-a-roo of cars) that a few deep slow breaths, a small smile – even if somewhat forced – and a gentle touch on the hand of your loved one who is about to get on your last nerve CAN go a Looong way towards avoiding a complete stress breakdown! It ended up being pretty close to the BEST THANKSGIVING EVER! ;o)

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