Broken blue glass Christmas ornament

Fighting the ‘Jingle Bell Blues’

BY Scott Hamilton
Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling

November-December 2017 Inscribed

I suspect virtually all of us have seen at least one Hallmark movie at about a family at Thanksgiving or Christmas. Someone enters a new and grand relationship. A child reunites with an estranged parent. Still another finds a new or improved housing situation. The list of potential Hallmark moments is lengthy.

The holiday season is often stressful for many. If you take away nothing else, please hear this: Stress, anxiety, and depression are all very common during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, and if you experience such concerns, you are not alone.

Just for fun, see if what I’m about to describe is similar to your experience. Many people are coming to your house for the fantabulous feast because your house is where everyone goes for the Hallmark party! What are some of things necessary to pull off this Hallmark moment?

You’ll have a grocery list as long as your arm because you will cook to feed a small army. Next, you’ll spend approximately two days preparing and actually cooking the food for which you took out a small business loan. Add to that actually making sure your house is ready to receive guests, especially the snooty cousin you know will peek in your medicine cabinet. You’ll need card tables and chairs, in addition to the dining table that seats 10. Will you need assigned seating to limit potential problems?

Moving some furniture to accommodate the extra tables and chairs will be necessary. Someone will need to help you clean house before the locusts descend on the grand spread. The children who reside in your home, your built-in labor force, are likely off to some school event or friend’s house—anywhere to avoid the unfolding Thanksgiving drama. These same children may actually be hiding in their rooms, piled up on their beds texting their friends about how crazy you’ve become. Oops, I’m sorry. That’s what happens at my house. At your house, the children wait patiently on the couch for your gently directed request for assistance.

Since I’ve shattered your illusions of a Hallmark Thanksgiving and Christmas, let’s take a look at what prompts stress, anxiety, and depression. The first question to consider is this: From where does stress come?

Origin of Stress

At the primal level, stress is a physiological response to the activation of the brain’s fight or flight response. People encounter some stimulus, whether directly or indirectly, that screams at the brain, “Is this manageable or do I run?”

Many experiences can provoke this physiological process, the system God designed to keep us safe. There’s a narrowly missed car accident, a squabble with your significant other, or the seasons themselves. The list of what may provoke stress is long. As stress taxes the physiological systems, some will notice new health maladies from rising blood pressure to weight gain to increasing aches and pains, sleep disruptions, and digestive distress, to name a few.

Left unchecked, other concerns with concentration, forgetfulness, worry, moodiness, and loneliness may surface. Ironically, as “symptoms” of stress continue to manifest themselves, we may become concerned for ourselves, thinking, “What the heck is wrong with me?” If we’ve seen a medical doctor by now, we may have enough physical concerns frustrating us to be at the point of wondering, “Am I going crazy?” By this time, we may think, “My mercy, I need a therapist or pastoral counselor,” which is probably true.

Relationships with others may start to falter; very little, if anything, gives you joy. You may not be sleeping, your appetite is declining, and you may be gaining weight. To make matters worse, it’s the holiday season, supposedly a time of comfort and joy, but you’re miserable and beginning to suck others into that depressive vortex as well.

Stressful Events

Along with the holiday season being stressful in and of itself, other life events may influence the holiday experience, including a number of firsts.

A close family member may have died since the last holiday gathering. You, or someone close to you, may have divorced and you are confronting the holiday season with dread.

Significant illness may be attacking a close family member or spouse, and you must navigate the seasons without assistance for the first time. Another event that many usually consider an exciting time is retirement. Most I know look forward to retiring with great anticipation, but once it arrives, retirement may not be as attractive as you thought it would be.

Now What?

Now, let’s shift our focus to some practical things you can do to help ease your stress, anxiety and depression during the holiday season.

1. Meditation or prayerfulness: contemporary research actually suggests that meditation and/or prayerfulness may alter neurological networks inside the brain.1

2. Breathing deeply helps the body ease itself.

3. Being present helps us slow down.

4. Reaching out to your emotional and social networks reinforces our relational ties.

5. Tuning in to your body lets us consciously work to relax.

6. Decompression, using tennis or golf balls, helps manage foot and leg problems.

7. Laughing out loud is contagious.

8. Cranking up your music can put the brain into the emotional state it was in when it first heard the music2. (Do not turn it up so loud as to harm your hearing.)

9. Getting up and moving your body does miraculous things.

10. Being grateful supports emotional well-being.

[1] Carolyn Gregoire, “A Scientist Explains How Meditation And Prayer Rewire Your Brain,” https://www.huffingtonpost.com, (May 26, 2016).

[2] Adam M. Croom, “Music, Neuroscience, and the Psychology of Well-Being: A Précis,” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3249389/ (January 2, 2012).