Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Holiday Blues

The time of year known as the holiday season is upon us once again. This season evokes mixed feelings in many people, including some Pastors. Some Pastors actually dread this season. I understand why. The holiday season causes stress that impacts a lot of people, and Pastors have a hard time helping people deal with that stress. In this post I am going to deal with the sources of that kind of stress and offer suggestions to deal with it.

Holiday Stress #1: Feeling sad or angry. Life isn't fair. People lose jobs, get cancer, lose custody of their children. Blows of this nature can feel more painful during a time of year when everyone seems to be partying, gathering contentedly with loved ones, and in general enjoying life even more than usual. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve are only three days out of the year. You don't need these days to be perfect. If your life is in a time of crisis or higher than average stress, your goal should be to make these days at minimum "okay," no better or worse than other days during this time of your life. Adjust your expectations and your viewpoint. Most people post mostly positive things on Facebook. Remember that a smiling photo is only a moment in time. Some lives that seem picture perfect are very much the opposite. Don't waste your time envying people who give out an image of perfection. And definitely don't try to remake your life in their image. It doesn't tell the whole story. And the real story might even be very much the opposite.
Holiday Stress #2: Shopping stress. Some people love shopping. They even love the kind of aggressive shopping that happens on "Black Friday" (which is now, I guess, shifting to Thanksgiving.) Some people love shopping, but only in relaxed circumstances--when they have plenty of money and time and when the stores are not overly busy and the help is competent and readily available. And some people find every aspect of shopping for Christmas stressful--they hate shopping and hate trying to please people with gifts, and struggle to pay for the gifts they feel obligated to purchase.  The other group of people who feel the stress at this time of year is, of course, people who work in retail. In many cases they rely on holiday-related sales to keep their businesses afloat, and that pressure falls hardest on the front line employees, such as cashiers and sales clerks. I know people can be awful. Know that I'm praying for you. Try to be good to yourselves and plan something to look forward to at the end of each shift, and also try to plan a vacation after it's all over (if you can afford it, of course--many retail jobs don't pay very much.)  There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of shopping. If you love shopping for Christmas and have money you want to spend to stimulate the economy, Your best bet is to take advantage of extended hours and shop in the middle of the shopping season and later in the evening. Retail establishments tend to be less busy after the dinner hour, until the last few days before Christmas, when the busy-ness can extend into those hours as well. If you don't have the kind of money you would like to have to buy things for loved ones this Christmas, consider approaching the loved ones for whom you would habitually shop and suggesting that you change your approach this year. You could agree to exchange items within a set dollar limit, exchange items that you already own, or even forgo a gift exchange entirely. Some families exchange photos of the items they plan to buy for one another and then purchase the items in the post-holiday sales. Another alternative is to donate to a charity that is meaningful to the other person.  Not everyone appreciates this gesture, but some folks do.
Holiday Stress #3: Jerks. Jerks seem to come out of the woodwork during the holiday season. Jerk shoppers swoop in and steal your parking lot in the mall. Jerks get drunk and pass out during the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, or start an argument about politics on Christmas Day. Once again, the first thing you should do is lower your expectations. If you are bothered by someone's drinking or drugging during the holidays, check out an Alanon meeting during the holiday season. Alanon is for anyone who is bothered by the drinking of another person, even if that person is dead or no longer in your life. Alanon teaches techniques for dealing with fights and drama that alcohol inspires some people to initiate.  The next tactic is to limit time with people who tend to create drama and conflict during the holidays, and make it clear to all in advance that this will be the case (we will arrive at X time and leave at Y time.) If you fear that imposing this sort of limit will lead to conflict, then you need to choose your poison and understand that you are making a choice--do I want to deal with drama before the holiday or drama during?) The third tactic is to plan to leave if/when drama starts--"I'm sorry, but I don't want to get into that right now. I'm/we're going to leave." You must get everyone with you on the same page if you use this technique. I have utilized it myself and it is very effective. The key here is to plan a fun alternative in advance. It can be something as simple as popcorn and Netflix at home, but you should always have a plan to enjoy yourself in lieu of being an audience or participant in drama initiated by someone else. The fourth tactic is to attend the holiday celebration(s) that you are dreading as usual, but plan an equivalent amount of time spent doing something you will enjoy--preferably later that day or the next day. Then when the stuff you dreaded begins, you can mentally check out and start thinking about the activity you are looking forward to.
Holiday Stress #4: Loneliness. For some, holidays are overstuffed. For others the days are overly empty. Perhaps you are single and live alone, have few family or don't have very loving relationships with family. Maybe you've tried spending holidays with friends or coworkers but found that awkward.  I've spent Thanksgiving alone and Christmas virtually alone, and found the days relaxing--certainly much more enjoyable than holidays I've spent filled with travel stress and family infighting. I'm not sure how to tell you to do the same. I am an introvert and so I enjoy time I spend alone. If you are not an introvert and don't want to be alone at the holidays, try going to a public place, such as a church, and striking up a friendly conversation. And, of course, there is always the option of volunteering. Most volunteer organizations are over-subscribed for Thanksgiving, but volunteering on Christmas Day can be helpful and meaningful. Google is pretty good at bringing up local opportunities if you don't know where to start.
Holiday Stress #5: Too much of a good thing all at once stress. This may be the most common type of holiday stress in materially blessed countries like the United States. It seems as the world goes mad trying to cram every second with eating, drinking and being merry for five weeks. You can try to ease that pressure by scheduling some of your personal holiday celebrating and gift giving for later on during the traditional twelve days in the Christmas season (Dec. 24-Jan. 6). Even if you do that, you may find yourself overwhelmed with social obligations. If you struggle with the temptation to indulge in too much food or drink, these social obligations can be a major source of stress. Don't put so much pressure on yourself.  If you abstain from alcohol due to an addiction and your recovery feels at all fragile, don't participate in any holiday celebrations beyond what you absolutely need to for work, and make sure that all of your support systems are fully in place. If your problem is just garden variety overindulging and undersleeping, aim to take it down a notch or two. I'm a recovering compulsive overeater but I haven't binged in over two decades and I let myself have small portions of rich foods at holiday celebrations and don't feel deprived. Whatever you do, don't make a resolution to start dieting/exercising in January, unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere. The I've dealt with the problem with "weight creep" a few times in my life and a new diet/exercise plan has the greatest chance of success during the spring and summer. This is true even if you exercise indoors. Why is this? It's just how nature works. You're fighting the circadian rhythm. If you have established a diet/exercise plan prior to the holidays, do your best to keep up with it, even if you are traveling. Indulge a little but don't go overboard--or if you do go overboard, get back on track as soon as you can manage.
Holiday Stress #6: I can't take this much longer/I have no hope stress. I will deal with this type of stress in my next post.

One of the things that helps me deal with stress is music. Studies have shown that music can lift your mood. If you are feeling low, the best technique is to start with a song that mirrors your mood. If that doesn't do the trick, gradually switch to more and more uplifting music. Here is one of the pensive songs I associate with the holidays. It always lifts my spirits.

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