“No Christmas tree at psychologist Anderson’s house this year” was the headline for a news broadcast I caught earlier this week. The report was on holiday stress, and how harmful it can be to our mental and physical wellbeing. As you can glean from the headline a psychologist was being interviewed, and this year in order to reduce stress, he and his family were forgoing the Christmas tree. Personally, I would be sad not having a tree, but that’s because a Christmas tree is not a stress inducer for me, quite the opposite. A Christmas tree makes me feel good with its fresh smell, festive ornaments and glittering lights. My stress triggers are different.

The gist of Mr. Anderson’s concern was how you identify what it is that makes you stressed and what you can do to balance the demands of the season with your own needs. Mr. Anderson and his family decided against a tree, because for them it represented mostly work and very little reward. For others the answers to a less stressful and more fulfilling holiday season lie elsewhere.

The ‘too-stressed-for-your-own-good’ warning signs mentioned in the interview included frequently walking into a room and forgetting why you are there. Mr. Anderson acknowledged that this happens to all of us occasionally, but argued that if it happens regularly then it might be a sign that you need to slow down. Considering this is the case for me, I figured maybe it’s time I inventory my own stress level.

My family has already simplified parts of the holiday craziness; for example we decided several years ago not to buy gifts for adults and we are pretty relaxed when it comes to food and decorations. However, there are other stress inducers that can throw me for a loop during the holidays, such as crowded stores, a lack of time to exercise regularly and a general sense of angst at the contrast between our holiday extravaganza and the reality of the state of the world at large.

Crowded stores are fairly easy to avoid – you can do most any kind of shopping online these days, from groceries to electronics to clothes. Buying online may require a little more foresight and planning, but that’s not so bad, is it? I do like bookstores though, and since wandering about a bookstore makes me feel good I will keep venturing to my local one, for sure.

My need for exercise is someone else’s need for a massage or an hour of quiet meditation; basically it’s the need for personal re-charging, and we all have our preferences for how to do this. It’s tricky however, because even though I know I’ll become grumpy, irritable and less productive if I don’t go for a run or a nice long walk, I am still willing to skip it because it produces guilt. It’s hard to say ‘I am going to take care of me now’, when there is a house to clean, kids to drive, food to cook and presents to buy. Once guilt enters the picture the whole point of taking time for yourself is moot. This is definitely an area to work on.

The holiday message of joy and peace is important and it’s a good time of year to take stock of where you are, in relation to yourself, family and friends and society at large. This leads me to the third “stress-trigger” which is the contrast of worrying about “making holiday cheer” while there is a general sense of unrest in the world. How do I make sure my kids understand that the holidays are not just about presents and decorations and food? How do I foster compassion and awareness without killing the joy?

While I don’t have a great answer for myself yet regarding the third trigger, I do know that, as with most things in life, finding holiday joy is a matter of striking a balance and being willing to compromise a bit. So, if you feel like the season has you overwhelmed, take a few minutes to think about what your triggers are and what you can do to make the load a little lighter. Personally, I try to think about “having the courage to be kind” to myself and others, figuring that if I can do both, I am a step closer to some peace and joy, and maybe the rest of the world is as well.

By: Felicia Shermis

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