What comes to mind when you think about the Christmas holidays? For me, I think of family traditions like seeing extended family, eating good food, Christmas decor, music, movies (e.g., “you’ll shoot your eye out” and cousin Eddie), and most importantly the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ. With much tradition and heritage, Christmas can be a magical time of year that is full of meaning and celebration.
As a child, everything seemingly stopped in my young world as the days passed in December. School let out. The songs on the radio and television shows became devoted to the holiday. It felt like a party that began after Thanksgiving and culminated with an awesome family gathering where I received gifts. As I have gotten older, the season has become busier and more complex. My level of responsibility has grown. Now I have four children of my own. As a child, I would have been dumbfounded had someone told me that one day I would not be concerned about receiving the gifts on the Christmas list I toiled over so fervently for Santa. These days I am much more concerned about the joy that comes from giving gifts to my children and using my time wisely as the season brings different and sometimes additional demands for my time and energy. In the same way that I spent hours considering what toys and items I wanted to ask Santa and my parents for as a child, I now find myself considering, for example, how to manage normal monthly financial obligations and the “extra” finances my wife and I need to create a memorable experience for our children and others.
Even though Christmas is generally considered a joyful and heartwarming time by millions around the world, it also can be a stressful time of year. As we get older, the innocent and exciting childhood memories of Christmas typically come to incorporate more mature themes such as the monetary cost of the holiday season, managing family obligations, travel plans, or work schedules and deadlines.
In my work as a mental health therapist, I have counseled with many people who struggle through the holiday season for a variety of reasons. In addition to everyday stressors, this time of year can also become associated with grieving lost loved ones, illness, loneliness, and other burdens that may become even more significant in our lives than the holiday itself. Whether you are dealing with a recent loss or common stressors such as finances, the Christmas holidays can bring challenges. How then are we to manage a time that is emblematic of the birth of Jesus Christ but often brings stress and, for some, heartache? How do we remain joyful and generous this Christmas season? If I may, let me offer a few suggestions that can help you manage stress during this holiday season.
Grief can be one of the more difficult stressors to manage during the holiday season. As we grow older, we will inevitably lose important people in our lives. Grief is something that is best met head on rather than being bottled up or repressed. At the same time, it is important to give yourself permission not to grieve all of the time. You may need to start traditions that allow you time to share stories and memories of lost loved ones while also giving you permission not to be sad throughout the holiday season. For example, you may choose to give back in a way and to do so in honor of someone you have lost. Always remember that you are not alone and that the loss of your loved one is shared by others. Mostly, often remind yourself of Jesus’ compassion for your circumstances and loss.
We see an example of Jesus’ compassion in the story of Lazarus found in John 11. Despite Jesus knowing that he would raise Lazarus from the dead (vs. 4 and 11), scripture says that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” by Mary’s weeping and the weeping of the Jews that were with her (v. 33; NIV). Verse 35 says that “Jesus wept.” Then, he went to Lazarus’ tomb and raised him from the dead (vs. 38-44). I find it striking that Jesus fully knew that Lazarus had died and that he would raise him from the dead. However, he still chose to enter into grief with Mary, Martha, and others. I hope that you are able to experience Jesus’ compassion if the stress of grief is weighing you down this holiday season. Also, remember that Christ has made a way for those of us who choose to follow him, and this life is not the end. See, Martha, and no doubt Mary also, was aware that Jesus would conquer death on the cross. Verse 24 says, “Martha answered, ‘I know he [Lazarus] will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’” Even though Martha knew that her brother would rise again at the last day, she was still overcome with grief. If you are grieving during this holiday season, try to remember that Jesus cares about your current circumstances and feelings AND that he has conquered death and secured a place for those who love and follow Him (John 3:16-17).
Maybe you are not dealing with grief this holiday season but you are dealing with stressors. Everyday stressors like illness or finances or estranged relationships can be a heavy burden during the holidays. It is helpful to do your best to have a plan to manage each stressor through self-care. You can think of self-care as self-compassion and working to make sure you take good care of yourself during a stressful time. Remember, the Great Commandment tells us: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22: 37-39). Give yourself permission to take care of yourself during the holiday season.
Relationships are often another source of stress for many during the holiday season. In order to manage this stress, it may be necessary to create healthier and clearer boundaries in your life. For example, you may need to say “No” to things so that you avoid getting spread too thin. This can cause relationship stress because saying “No” to others may lead you to fear disappointing them or hurting their feelings. It can help to write out a list of priorities that are important to you for the holiday season. If a possible commitment arises and it does not fit into those priorities, then say “No” if you can and without feeling guilty. The saying is very true that you do not need to say “Yes” to everything but it is usually good to say “Yes” to the things most important to you and your family. For example, you may encounter opposition if you choose to purchase a dish rather than toil over an old and time consuming family recipe. Don’t feel bad. Feel good that you avoided over-extending yourself. Besides, others in the family can choose to make the famous but time consuming dish if they so please.
Anxiety or Depression
Lastly, there are resources and exercises that can help you if you are someone who deals with more debilitating forms of worry. Anxiety disorders or depression, for example, can become less managed with the additional stress of the holidays. If you need additional social support during the holidays, then you would likely benefit from seeing a counselor. Sometimes having someone to listen and validate your thoughts and feelings goes a very long way. If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, or another mental health disorder you should initiate therapy or talk to your doctor about how to get more help. Also, exercises such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and managing self-talk can help to mitigate worsening symptoms. A Google search can lead you to a therapist in your area and instructions for these techniques and others if you are interested. Also, the National Institute of Mental Heath’s website, www.nimh.nih.gov, is a wonderful resource where you can find information about the techniques discussed in this article, and many other helpful topics regarding mental health and wellbeing.
Holiday seasons create an opportunity for a change in perspective and a shift in focus. I pray that this Christmas season you are able to focus on Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. If you struggle with grief or additional stress during the holiday season, hopefully some of these tips can help you manage your stress and the related stressors. There are also many great Advent resources available if you would like a resource that can lead you and help you keep your focus on the true meaning of Christmas: our savior, Jesus Christ. God bless you.