Handling Stress at Christmas

by: Dr. Rami Nader


It's that time of year. The holiday season. It is funny how readily a season that is known for peace and joy turns into a season of stress and anxiety. It seems impossible to find a time to simply rest and enjoy the season because there is so much that needs to be done. Was it supposed to be this way? Is this the meaning of the Christmas season? What happened to peace and joy? Goodwill towards man? I can admit to times when I've caught myself yelling at that driver who took the last parking spot in the mall parking lot. Where did it all go wrong?

As a psychologist, one might assume I have some deep insights as to the underlying psychosocial factors that have led to the holiday season becoming what it has become. However, I think an analogy, albeit a strange one, might be more appropriate. I think the Christmas season has become a lot like Panic Disorder. If you have ever had a panic attack, you are not alone; more than one in three people have at least one panic attack each year. What we know about panic attacks is that they result from catastrophic misinterpretations of normal bodily sensations. For example, I may notice that my heart is beating a little faster than usual and explain it away by the fact that I just had a Grande Christmas latte. No harm, no problem.

However, if I interpret my fast heartbeat as a sign that I am having a heart attack and am going to die, I would likely become anxious, which would make my heart beat faster, which I would view as confirmation that something is wrong, which would make me more anxious and so on. The spiral continues until I have a full-blown panic attack and only ends when I am completely exhausted.

So what does this have to do with Christmas? I think that this time of year, we can all fall into the trap of misinterpreting the meaning of this season. Christmas becomes about doing all of the "things" Christmas entails: braving malls, buying gifts, mailing cards, attending holiday parties, hanging up lights, traveling, organizing time to see family, picking out trees, scheduling time off work, preparing for Boxing Day sales and so on. This is in addition to everything else we do in life. It's all quite exhausting. But when we do all of these things and still do not experience the warmth and joy that the Christmas season is supposed to be about, how do we interpret that? Well maybe it is because we are not getting into the season enough, so we do more Christmas "things" expecting to be filled with the spirit of the season. The more we do, the more worn out we get and the less we feel that spirit we desire. And the cycle spirals. By the time Christmas comes, we are so thankful it is over because we are so exhausted.

Christmas was never meant to be a frantic period of activity culminating in exhaustion. To break the cycle, it requires a change in perspective, just as we do in treating panic. To treat panic, the point is not to prevent the physical sensations, but rather, to reinterpret their meaning. If you interpret the sensations for what they are (natural, not dangerous), you will not get anxious when you notice them and you will not panic.

If you find yourself stressed out this Christmas season, perhaps you are misinterpreting the reason for Christmas. Doing more Christmas "stuff" is not the answer; in fact, that may be part of the problem. Take a step back and think about the very first Christmas. It was about the birth of a baby boy. The only gifts exchanged were gifts presented in praise and worship to the newborn Saviour. Praise for God's ultimate gift to the world - that is the purpose of this season. If you can reinterpret everything else that goes on this holiday season with that in mind, you may just find yourself experiencing less anxiety and more of the spirit of Christmas.

(Article appeared in the Spiritually Speaking Column of the North Shore News on December 8, 2006)