The Christmas season is widely recognized as a period of celebration and merriment. Here in the Philippines, as early as September, buildings get decorated with Yuletide adornments, and Christmas songs begin to be played on the radio or on Spotify. Come the month of December, corporate or casual Christmas parties are being held. Then, that much-awaited gathering at the 25th of December happens, highlighted by the Noche Buena feast and unwrapping of gifts. These things altogether paint a picture of a merry, happy, and jolly Christmas, as the songs describe the occasion.
This view of Christmas, however, is challenged as reality strikes in. The Christmas rush brings in heavy traffic. Handling expenses for gifts and celebrations become tricky amid the 13th-month pay. Most of all, the pressures of having that “perfect” season is impressed upon many.
Stress has been an inevitable part of life, but it has been observed to increase during the Christmas season.
There are a handful of data indicating the effect of Christmas on stress. According to a national survey by the American Psychological Association, 38% of respondents say the stress in their life increases during the holidays, with lack of time, lack of money, and commercialism or hype cited as the leading causes of such heightened stress.
Califonia-based consumer health information site Healthline, meanwhile, found on its 2015 survey that 62% regarded their stress level as “very or somewhat” increased during the holiday, with financial demands of the season, negotiating the interpersonal dynamics of family, and maintaining personal health habits such as an exercise regimen listed as the causes.
Elsewhere, 32% of British respondents find Christmas to be more stressful than going through a divorce, according to a survey commissioned by marketplace platform Zeek; while 71% of Australians feel stressed over the season, as online marketplace Groupon uncovered.
Christmas has been a source of stress for many, and if people will take such feelings of stress for granted, it might turn the supposedly joyful season the other way around.
As several medical sites confirm, holiday stress can lead to conditions such as colds, flu, headaches, body aches, inability to sleep, irritability or moodiness, decreased satisfaction with tasks, persistent feeling of urgency, anxiety, and depression.
Discussing such effects of stress, preventive and lifestyle medicine physician, Dr. Jennifer Weinberg recognized that emotions such as anxiety or fear can trigger physiological changes in one’s body involving a cascade of stress hormones as one attempts to maintain balance.
“This stress response involves neurological pathways and biochemical reactions throughout the body that you may recognize as a pounding heart, rapid breathing, muscle tension, sweating, and/or digestive upset,” Dr. Weinberg added in an article at The Chopra Center’s website. “This is why [in times] like holiday traditions, stressors like coping with family gatherings, or emotions like those that arise around giving and receiving gifts may trigger physical symptoms.”
There are a number of elements that could contribute to holiday stress, and anyone who might feel overwhelmed and stressed this season could pinpoint these stressors and address them.
One of these is the workload that piles up during the season. Dean Burnett, neuroscientist and author of The Happy Brain, explained in an article at The Guardian that the demands of work (or even academics) during Christmas possibly create a situation where stress will be more common.
“Workload and stress are clearly linked, but just because it’s Christmas it doesn’t mean the regular demands of maintaining a household go away,” Mr. Burnett wrote. “If anything, because of work and school closures and more regular visitors, those demands increase. And heaped on top of this are a number of other duties… many of which are pretty pricey at a time when money is increasingly tight.”
Family can also be a cause of stress in the holidays, he added. The stress can come from political or cultural clashes that can result in heated discussions that create a tense atmosphere over the dinner table.
Also, family-related stress can be caused by staying in a prolonged period in close quarters with the family, resulting in a lack of privacy and even loss of control.
Another contributor and perhaps the greatest cause of holiday stress nowadays is the great expectations people have during the Christmas season.
“The traditional image of Christmas is, let’s be honest, incredibly optimistic,” Mr. Burnett admitted. The complexity and uncertainty of life cannot guarantee that “perfect Christmas” which has been obviously portrayed mainstream. “And yet, we still expect it,” he said.
“The human tendency to expect the best is the result of a well-known optimism bias, something seemingly inherent in our brains. This, coupled with the planning fallacy (a related phenomenon where we repeatedly underestimate how much time and effort tasks will take despite previous experiences) would lead to many people expecting a fun, pleasant, relaxing Christmas and ending up with a messy, chaotic, stressful one,” the neuroscientist continued.
There is another term for this, as coined by Debra Kissen, executive director of the Light on Anxiety CBT Treatment Center in Chicago — the happiness trap. Ms. Kissen explained that “expectations that run high for joy” can trap somebody into a notion of holiday happiness that eventually fall short in the end.
“Any time we set ourselves up with high expectations, it’s not going to work out that way,” Ms. Kissen was quoted as saying in U.S. & World Report, adding that when people try too hard to be happy, they make themselves miserable.
The Christmas season can be a stressful time for many, but it should not be the case in the long run. The best one can do is to recognize the stressors and manage them.
Christopher Dwyer, a researcher and educator at the National University of Ireland, Galway, further suggests that keeping perspective is a viable way to address holiday stress. “When under stress, it is easy to lose perspective; things can seem insurmountable,” he wrote in Psychology Today. “Instead, we need to focus on the good things when we are stressed — the things for which we should be thankful.” — Adrian Paul B. Conoza