Posts Tagged ‘holiday stress’

Well-Being with Whitney: Christmas Peace with Fractured Families

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

This is the time of year when the harsh reality of family estrangement hits the hardest. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression rates spike during the holiday season when family stress collides with hopes for Christmas peace. This when we feel the pressure to present the image of a happy family to others in our Christmas cards, letters, and Facebook posts. This is when family gatherings bring together people who don’t get along during the rest of the year, with relatives trying to be on their best behavior. Despite family dysfunction, many of us hope that somehow, Christmas magic will solve our family’s problems. But we can’t sugarcoat our fractured families as easily as icing a broken Christmas cookie.

It’s time to stop magical thinking and start pursuing Christmas peace — peace within ourselves, with our family members, and with God — in the midst of dysfunction.

Ever since I was a girl, I’ve dreaded Christmas even as I’ve looked forward to it, because of the tension in my family. My parents divorced when I was 7 years old, setting in motion a stressful lifestyle for me that included listening to arguments and shuttling between houses. The Christmas season, while full of fun, exacerbated that stress by intensifying the arguments and complicating an already complex schedule. Figuring out who I would visit for Christmas, and when, became a tug of war in which I felt like a rope being pulled too hard. Eating copious amounts of chocolate Santas and singing along to Christmas carols on the radio distracted me somewhat from the stress. But no amount of Christmas magic could dissolve the sadness that settled in my soul like a black lump of coal in a stocking.

Now my family has new fractures in it, from a wide variety of misunderstandings, conflicts, and grudges. So as an adult, I still have never experienced the elusive magical family Christmas I’ve dreamed about experiencing. At least now I can see the situation through the eyes of grace. As an adult, I’ve learned that everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes all of us mess up even when we’re doing the best we can. Sometimes others hurt us so deeply that it’s hard to forgive. Yet still, I’ve continued to fall into magical thinking, naively believing every year when the holiday season hits that the stress will stop and forgiveness will prevail. Then I’m disappointed and frustrated when that doesn’t happen.

No more. This year, I’m giving up unrealistic expectations. I’m accepting that my Christmas experience will likely contain some pain that I simply can’t do anything to change. But that’s not a resignation; that’s a relief. I’m able to relax, having turned off the pressure of trying to make the family that I want happen, or of trying to pretend that it exists, at Christmas. I can finally enjoy peace at Christmas, despite family conflicts.

Families are complicated because people are complicated. People are complicated because they make a tangled mess of good and bad decisions, which God has given humanity free will to do. But we celebrate Christmas because God decided to live among us with unconditional love. That’s the true source of peace. No matter how our family members fail to love us and we fail to love them, we can live in peace because nothing can ever separate us from God’s love, as Romans 8:38-39 promises.

So this Christmas, don’t worry about the dysfunction in your family. God’s love is big enough to cover it all with a beautiful blanket of peace.

Well-Being with Whitney: Take Stress Out of Your Holiday Schedule

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Christmas is my favorite holiday, so for years I tried to pack all the Christmas activities I possibly could into my holiday schedule to enjoy as much Christmas season fun as possible. But that approach to holiday planning ironically diminishes fun, because it leads to holiday stress. I learned that the night I drove around for 5 hours to see prize-winning Christmas lights, only to return home exhausted and wishing I would have just stayed home.

The newspaper I worked for as a reporter held a contest each holiday season for readers to choose the best Christmas lights in area neighborhoods. After helping to compile the results, I got so excited that I set a goal for myself to visit each home in a single evening. I carefully planned my route with a map of the winning homes, then set out on my adventure after work. Inside the car, I blasted Christmas carols and munched on popcorn and chocolate candy to add to the festive atmosphere. For a while, it felt like a traveling party. But after an hour or so, I had driven myself deep into a holiday haze. All of the nativity scenes, Santas, wreaths, snowmen, angels, and other decorations started to blur together in my mind. A myriad of blinking lights on houses, driveways, trees, and bushes twinkled so relentlessly that the details of their award-winning designs escaped me and all I saw was yet another bright thing. Yet I still drove on, determined not to miss anything on my frantic quest for fun.

By the time I returned home late at night, I wasn’t feeling the fun at all. I was just exhausted.

Years later, I experienced the most Christmas fun I’d ever had — while stuck in a hospital! That year I had to cancel many of the holiday activities I’d hoped to enjoy, because my son was due to be born around Christmas. His birth was the reason I was hospitalized over the holiday. I couldn’t even go to church for Christmas that year. Yet the simplicity of that Christmas with God, family, and friends was full of joy.

The Christmas season brings so many opportunities to experience wonder that it’s easy to fill up your December calendar completely. But too many good activities can have a bad effect on you. Cramming too much into your schedule affects your soul like gorging on candy affects your body: it causes harmful stress.

So this year when you’re making holiday plans, intentionally schedule some downtime between activities so you’ll be able to rest and reflect just as much as you celebrate. That way, your soul can fully absorb the wonder of the season — and most importantly, connect to the One whose birthday is the reason for it.

Well-Being with Whitney: Napping Away Holiday Stress?

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

The “napping pod” swung gently back and forth while the person inside slept in darkness (wearing a sleep mask over his eyes) and quiet (thanks to noise-canceling earphones). Although the pod looked like a giant cradle, the person sleeping there wasn’t a baby — it was a businessman wearing a suit. I laughed at that sight when I saw it in an airport lounge. But naps are a serious trend right now, fueling lots of new businesses offering customers places to take “power naps” for stress relief and greater well-being. And now, during the holiday season, naps are more popular than ever. Big meals and Christmas cookies tend to make us sleepy because of the way carbs affect our brains, and naps help us manage stress during the holidays, as well.

I have to confess that I don’t usually take naps. When I worked at The Salvation Army’s USA headquarters (which had a designated napping room), I failed miserably every time I tried to use it, because I worried that I’d be late going back to my desk if I overslept, so I could never relax enough to go to sleep in the first place. Not only that, but I still have a lingering sense of guilt about napping whenever I do (rarely) take an opportunity to do so. It just seems lazy, somehow, to me.

But sleep studies say otherwise. According to the National Sleep Foundation, brief naps (those that last only 20 to 30 minutes) can help improve people’s moods, alertness, and performance. So I shouldn’t worry about naps harming my productivity when they can actually improve it.

In fact, Psalm 127:2 dismisses concerns about skipping sleep in an effort to be more productive and encourages trusting God enough to simply sleep when our bodies and souls need rest: “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat — for he grants sleep to those he loves.”

This holiday season, I’m going to try taking some brief naps from time to time, as a way of trying to manage stress better. I won’t be shelling out money to rent a fancy napping pod (and certainly not one that looks like a giant baby cradle!) but I’ll make some time to relax on my bed during some afternoons at home, set an alarm for 30 minutes, and see what happens.

Do you take afternoon naps? Why or why not? How could you reduce your  holiday stress this year by improving the quality of your sleep?

Well-Being with Whitney: Your Holiday Stress Detox Prescription — Patience

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

Warm mineral waters from a mountain spring in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia swirled around my husband Russ and me during a recent visit to the place that George Washington helped make famous as a stress relief destination. By “taking the waters” we were hoping for a fun time together and a stress detox. For centuries, people had raved about the water’s power to relax the soul and cleanse the body of toxins. All thoughts about the current pressures in our lives evaporated like the steam that rose from 102-degree water, even though it felt like we were being boiled like tea or mulled wine for a holiday party.

It took patience to stay in such hot water long enough to experience its well-being benefits. We had to stand up, move around, and drink multiple cups of cold water to stay alert while immersed in the pool. But the healing results were worth the effort. By increasing our blood circulation and making us sweat, the water helped our bodies get rid of toxic chemicals that had collected in our muscles. By lowering our blood pressure and immersing us in a peaceful environment, the water signaled our minds to relax and enjoy the present moment.

Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to be able to achieve such benefits without having to visit a special place? This holiday season, I’m trying to take home the healing lesson I learned at the famous mountain spring: that stress relief doesn’t really come through quick fixes, but through patiently nurturing good health.

So often during the holidays, I’ve been tempted to think that a quick fix of something fun — like eating another Christmas cookie or watching another TV show — will magically relieve stress. But quick fixes only leave me feeling more broken down by stress.

It’s common to respond to holiday stress in unhealthy ways such as eating too much sugar, drinking too much alcohol, and missing sleep, according to research from the American Psychological Association. For a short while, it feels good to lull on a sofa in front of a holiday movie drinking craft beer and eating chocolate Santas. But once the movie ends, the buzz fades, and the sugar high crashes, you’ll feel worse than you did before. Stress will only surge back when you try to cover it up with a quick fix.

What really works for holiday stress management is the same strategy that works any time of year: patiently taking good care of yourself.

Instead of reacting to the holiday stress that hits you, be proactive by developing a plan to renew your body and soul on a regular basis. Build some margin into your schedule for rest and reflection that will help you stay strong mentally, emotionally, and spiritually during the busy holiday season. Don’t slack off on healthy habits that help you maintain your physical well-being — habits like getting enough sleep and exercise.

Make time to think about what’s causing you the most stress, and then be intentional about doing whatever you can to change those factors. The American Psychological Association research showed that the factors most often causing stress for people included time and money pressures, diet concerns, and family gatherings gone wrong. Let go of unrealistic expectations about these issues and simply try to get through them gracefully. Perfect holidays never actually happen for anyone. But so what? You can still enjoy the season in the midst of imperfect circumstances. Just do your best to reduce stress in advance (like setting a holiday budget, letting go of activities that aren’t really meaningful for you, and enjoying truly meaningful traditions). Then go with the flow for the rest.

Have fun, but in moderation. Instead of having another piece of pie, stop at one. After enjoying some alcoholic punch, drink water for the rest of the party. Go ahead and see a movie, but don’t binge watch several in a row. Make time for enjoyable activities that truly nurture your well-being, such as taking walks, listening to music, and praying or meditating. You can even sit in a hot bath to relax, no mineral springs required (just turn your faucet to a high temperature and throw in some bath salts).

Be patient enough to nurture yourself well. The more patient you are, the more strength you can build to manage stress well this holiday season!