A season of superfluous stress: How winter holidays impact anxiety


art by Sarah Poor

Manal Salim

art by Sarah Poor
art by Sarah Poor
Despite the glittering lights, white sheets of glistening snow or glamorously wrapped gifts, around the bustling holiday season, research shows that more people are inclined to feel that their stress increases rather than decreases.
According to the American Psychological Association at www.apa.org, 38 percent of Americans feel an increase in stress during this time, and only eight percent experience a decrease.
As described in this research the APA conducted, the holiday season can be a cause of stress for many people for a variety of reasons. It may be a financial burden due to the excessive spending of money on gifts, or perhaps the search for the perfect gift for every important person in one’s life may trigger stress, explains senior Karina Kitchen.
As a student, Kitchen has found she incurs the most stress during the holiday season since it is around the same time as the end of the semester, thus making the addition of finals another source of pressure.
In general, a plethora of different causes trigger stress, according to Advanced Placement Psychology teacher Tim Drennan. Drennan explains humans have a fight-or-flight response built into their systems to deal with emergencies, and it is a part of the sympathetic nervous system that triggers a biological response to the stressor.
“There are an unlimited number of things that can cause stress,” Drennan said. “Generally it comes in at times where we are unsure about our ability to cope or adjust with an event, person, or demand. Unfortunately in our fast paced society, we experience stress whenever we feel the pressure to get everything done. This is pretty much a daily response for most of us, at least in this country. There is never enough time and every little thing that we must do is interpreted as an emergency or danger.”
The holidays offer plenty of reasons to be stressed out and anxious, Ken Duckworth, a director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said. Duckworth explained that the stress could be incurred from the unwrapped gifts, the pile of cookie exchange invites, or even the office parties.
However, for many, the biggest source of holiday stress is the family dinners, the family obligations and the burden of family tradition.
“There’s this idea that holiday gatherings with family are supposed to be joyful and stress-free,” Duckworth said. “That’s not the case. Family relationships and trying to please everyone is complicated. But that doesn’t mean that the solution is to skip the holidays entirely.”
Kitchen said she can relate to this burden of family stress as she remembers the trek she encounters each year to provide her mother with the perfect gift for Christmas. She said the commercial expectation of the holiday season may stray from the true purpose of this time.
“I know that every year, my dad and I shop for hours trying to find something that we think my mom will like. It can become stressful and somewhat discouraging when we don’t find what we’re looking for, but we try not to let it get to us and we use that time as bonding time for the two of us,” Kitchen said. “We also know that she simply appreciates the fact that we care about her and want her to have a good holiday.”
Similar to Kitchen’s positive approach to the holiday season, Drennan explains people often see the holidays as a much more positive time of year.
Once people realize those they are looking to please will love them regardless of the gift they receive, surviving the pressure of the holidays turns out to be much easier. However, if one simply views the holidays as a mad rush to purchase the ideal and perfect gift, the situation turns out to be uncomfortable and in turn stressful for many.
“I think for those who feel close to their support systems and don’t experience pressure to perform or play uncomfortable roles, the holidays can truly be relaxing,” Drennan said. “But relationships with perceived expectations that make us feel uncomfortable can truly be an unnecessary interruption to a routine that we are usually comfortable with.”
When people actually look forward to spending time with loved ones rather than focusing on the commercial aspect of the holidays, the outlook on the season improves significantly. According to the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner research on holiday stress at www.apa.org, 53 percent of individuals mention family or friends as their favorite thing about the holidays, and 36 percent specifically mention spending more time with family.
In contrast, based on the results of this same research study, many dislike the commercial aspects of the holidays such as shopping, money and commercialism. Because of these commercial triggers, 61 percent of people feel an increase in stress and 68 percent of Americans experience heightened fatigue.
Focusing on the personal relationships associated with the holiday season rather than the commercial aspects and using purchases to please others, are ways Kitchen has increased her level of happiness during this time. Reminding herself of the real importance of the season has proven to be an efficient method for relieving stress in Kitchen’s case.
“Though it may not be the healthiest method for combating pressure, I enjoy eating all of the holiday goodies that we may have in the kitchen as a more temporary way to deal with stress,” Kitchen said. “But, Christmas is my favorite holiday, so I’m generally really happy during the holiday season because of that. Focusing on the true meaning of the holiday and spending time with my family really helps me feel at peace.”
By Manal Salim