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How to Address Your Holiday Stress

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“Tis the season to be jolly”—and there those who aren’t too happy about it.

Among them is a woman named Jillian Bennett. This year, her young family will be hosting the 3rd Christmas dinner at their home and if past experiences are anything to go by, then singer Andy Williams will only be partly correct. This year, there will be kids “jingle belling” and “everyone” will be telling her to “be of good cheer” but it won’t be the most “wonderful time of the year.” It will, instead, be “the most wonderful time” to try out something suggested by her physician.

“There’s this thing wherein you hold your breath for, like, seven seconds and exhale for eight,” she said. “It’s supposed to relax you so I guess I’m going to need that to take my mind off of all the work.”

By “work,” of course, she was referring to what she calls “labors of love”—a flurry of chores, engagements and spending that will be added to her life as more of December gets added into the past. She’ll be buying presents and wrapping them, entertaining relatives that will be staying at her home and act as the primary point person for all preparations concerning their celebration for the season. She had all of that on her shoulders last year and it left her lacking in sleep.  “I was also grumpier than usual,” she shared. And there were times when she locked herself in the bathroom just to nurse a headache or calm down. These are the typical symptoms of stress and she is far from being the only one to experience in December.

Over the years, a number of studies have examined the burden of the holidays and they have revealed two consistent points: that stress related to them is real and a lot of those who experience them are women. In 2006, for example, the American Psychological Association published a study looking into 786 adults and found that of the women who participated in it, about 41 percent strongly disagree that they can relax during the holidays. Only 26 percent of the men who responded felt the same way. Last year, another study looked into this topic. Thriving Center of Psychology reportedly surveyed 1000 Americans and concluded that “74 percent of women versus 53 percent of men admitted to getting stressed around Thanksgiving and Christmas time.”

To those entrenched in the subject mental wellness, this isn’t surprising. Dora Kamau, for instance, is a mindfulness meditation teacher and in her write up for the Guardian, she examined this issue.

“Maybe it’s the external stress from the societal pressures and expectations of women during this time [that cause difficulties,]” she wrote.  She explained that customs tend to urge women “to be the best host, to provide the most perfect Christmas experience or simply, to have it all together.” And this can be a problem since “outside our own orbit, there’s also the stress that we take on from current affairs, not least the cost of living crisis and political instability.” This is among the reasons why the holidays can be quite a pain. But there are ways to cope.

For years, mental health experts and other related professionals have been recognizing the stress this season tends to place upon women and many of them have discussed methods to help them deal with it. But while there are several different tips brought forth by various names and institutions, most of them tend to share this one opinion: for a person to have a smoother time during the holidays, among the first steps is to know what that person really wants from it it.

Know the reason for the season

The holidays tend to be characterized by a proliferation of the unnecessary. Flashy ornaments come out of boxes; numerous lights are left on (even though they don’t need to be,) presents are given to people (regardless of whether or not they deserve it,) and tables are filled with dishes that can take a lot of time and resources to prepare (and recover from.) In the spirit of celebration, it’s a time of excess and extravagance. Aside from that, it’s also characterized by a reprieve from work or school. And, the media constantly shows the world people using this break to make joyful memories with their loved ones.

To relationship expert Love McPherson, these are just some of the aspect of “the holiday script” that has been pressuring people. In an interview with WGN News, McPherson said that the holidays (particularly Christmas) tend to be presented in certain ways and people are indirectly encouraged to live up to them. “Our realities often don’t match that,” she said. “Sometimes, we have the complications of a blended family, sometimes we’re dealing with a recent divorce or a breakup… even the loss of a loved one–different things that are really happening and a lot of the times those are letdowns.”

There are also financial limitations, she said. This prevents people from matching the level of pageantry and generosity often associated with the holidays. And when these hindrances are felt, they can cause many negative feelings.

As an expert of mind-body medicine, Debbie Fuehrer understands this. On a show of Mayo Clinic Radio, she said that one of the best remedies to this is to really know one’s self; to examine why one wants to live up to these narratives.

“What is the meaning behind all of this?” she said. “The more we can delve into that, then it can help reduce their anxiety and help them connect more with people in a way that they will really enjoy instead of what is presented as the ultimate holiday which is everyone’s always laughing and having the best time ever.”

With her in that program was Dr. Susanne Cutshall, an integrative health specialist who agreed with Fuehrer and suggested for people to have a more focused approach in getting joy from the holidays. She suggested for people to look at what’s most meaningful to them, then all the things they have control over and find a way to make the two work.

“Some of the… happiest people are the people that do find meaning in the holidays,” she said. So after learning what’s most meaningful, she suggests asking: “how do we savor it? How do we pay attention to them and savor that and discuss it as a family?”

Don’t bust your budget just to give gifts

Employing a focused pursuit of joy can require people to get creative. But sometimes, it is enough to try tested practices. For instance, if gift giving is a main source of joy during the holiday of a family on a tight budget, one can find compromises that retain the spirit of this activity while being considerate of financial realities.

McPhearson suggested setting up limits like giving gifts only to the kids. She also suggested sticking to traditions like “Secret Santa.” For the unfamiliar, the mechanics are simple: all the names of the participants are put in a container, people draw from it and the name they get is the only person they’ll buy a gift for. Normally, people keep the name they drew a secret until the gift giving ceremony so that they can surprise their recipient. This might work in many situations—even for families with kids exposed to cultures where children tend to receive many gifts on Christmas.

Vouching for this was Kaye Cortez, a Filipina mom who saw the value of the Secret Santa based on her experiences with her child. A year ago, one of her relatives was in a tight spot financially so their family agreed that instead of widespread gift giving come Christmas, they’ll just do the “Monito, Monita” tradition which is the Secret Santa variant popular amongst Filipinos. Cortez realized that her child would be alright with this because she noticed that in the past, her son would get several gifts but only fixate on the one he liked best.

“So, we tried that,” she said, “and we set up this rule wherein the ones who would draw the names of the kids in the family would consult the parents of those kids to know what they really enjoy. We put this in place so we can improve our chances of making the kids happy even though we’re technically scaling down on gifts. As far as I could tell, it worked.”

Breath so you don’t seethe

Gifts, however, aren’t the only things that tend to make a holiday special. Some people also view it as a chance to relax with loved ones. This isn’t easy for everyone given how busy holiday preparations can be but there are some things one can do to counteract the franticness of the season. The breathing process Bennett mentioned is one example.

It’s called the 4-7-8 technique. It’s basically a pranayama, a method of breath regulation linked to yoga. It starts with a practitioner finding a place to relax then take a four-second, close-lipped inhale through the nostrils. What follows after is a seven-second breath hold and an eight-second, purse-lipped exhale. This is normally repeated four times in a row. It is also encouraged for people to do this breathing with their diaphragm. This means that the stomach area should be expanding when one inhales; at least more than the chest.

Bennett’s doctor may be correct in saying that this can help someone relax. A study published on the National Library of Medicine has shown that this process can decrease the body’s heart rate and blood pressure. This, in turn, can help someone sleep well.

But while this can be effective on its own, it can also be a supplement to other stress-reducing practices supported by the Mayo Clinic. Planning ahead, for starters, can be a good way to minimize further stressors. Creating relaxing environments through music, scents and natural lighting was also suggested by the group; according to them, studies did show that vitamin D, the smell of citrus and music is good for one’s general well-being. But to them and the other experts mentioned above, among the most successful ways to reduce stress involves simply denying its source.

Say “no” to stress

When the holidays come, it can be harder to say “no.” It is often a time a when generosity is normally in full display so to deny people is to go against what is common. But as mentioned above, standards and a person’s realities don’t always see eye to eye and many experts throughout the years have said that stress tends to happen when one forces them to get along. This makes refusal an acceptable option to some.

“For many, the holiday season brings joy, but it can also bring more stress and some conflicting obligations,” the American Psychiatric Association said. “It is important to prioritize and simplify: prioritize what brings joy and emotional recharge (people or activities) and simplify when you can.”

Bennett—like Cortez and a lot of other women—admit that this is not easy. “It’s the context that makes it difficult,” she said. “Sometimes you look at a task or a gift or a goal and you think, ‘no, this is too much.’ But Christmas, she said, only happens once a year. It is a rare occasion that can convince people to push themselves to be more—more giving, more active, and more patient among others.

“So, before you say ‘no,” she said, “there could be that little voice in your head that goes, ‘oh but it’s just for now.’ ‘Christmas isn’t daily.’ So, you end up thinking, ‘why not?”

Because of reality, so experts have said; because, as songs go, this part of December is supposed to be “the season to be jolly,” “the most wonderful time of the year” and the “ha-happiest season of all” but many women all over the world—faced with the customary stress it brings–can’t help but disagree.

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