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   November 2005

 

Holiday Stress: Fact or Friction
The Four ’Fs’ Of Holiday Friction: Fantasies, Family, Food And Finances

BY MARK GORKIN

While many associate the holidays with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and its theme of gaining and sharing the holiday spirit, the opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities may have even more relevance:

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness ... It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Like Dickens, I too have tried to capture the complexity of the holidays; if not through a great novel, then with my one classic holiday joke. I realized with all this talk of pressure during the holidays, I needed to distinguish between ‘Holiday Blues’ and ‘Holiday Stress.’ Now holiday blues is the feeling of loss or sadness that you have over the holidays when, for whatever reason, you can’t be with those people who have been or are special and significant. And holiday stress ... is when you have to be with some of those people!

Now here’s some lighthearted, seasonal verse I wrote years ago for my radio feature, Stress Brake. It’s called Cruisin for a Bluesin’:

bulletThe holidays may bring you down
bulletAnd you just sing the blues.
bulletTo turn those soured tones around
bulletJust play these “don’ts” and “dos.”
bulletWhen you’re cruisin on the town
bulletDon’t charge away the blues.
bulletIf you card the credit crown
bulletYour spouse may blow a fuse.
bulletFor fussy dad the streets you’ll pound
bulletTo find the perfect muse.
bulletHe might as well be tied ... and bound
bulletHe’ll never change his views.
bulletIf you’re alone, don’t be house bound
bulletOr cuddle up to booze.
bulletGo ahead. Drown a frown with tears
bulletAnd folks who can amuse.
bulletWhy not try that choral sound Spread some joyous news. For when the voices do resound
bulletThen notes you can abuse.
bulletThis year don’t play the tragic clown
bulletBe bold in how you choose.
bulletYou too can prance above the ground
bulletPut on those dancing shoes.
bulletSo now we’ve come full circle round More lines I must refuse. Just know when love and friends abound
bulletThe blues have many hues.

Despite this good advice, we know that when you are with some of those people (or if they are just in your head), real sparks can fly. Here are “The Four ‘Fs’ of Holiday Friction: Fantasies, Family, Food and Finances.”

1. Fantasies.
First, the idyllic image of the holidays portrayed by the media seems so out of touch with reality, it’s enough to make you overload on eggnog (with or without the alcohol).

Another pressure is the internalized memories we carry around. I recall my friend Linda, a single parent at the time, berating herself because she couldn’t keep up with the holidays — the cooking, the shopping, the house decorations, etc. — the way her mother had. Of course, Linda’s mom did not work outside the home. I also recall Linda observing that, as a successful professional, she now has the money but lacks the time for the season. Previously, when she wasn’t working, she had plenty of time and no money. The ‘Holiday Catch-22.’

And, finally, this season turns most of us into sentimental jelly fish, just waiting to get entangled in the arms of that “true love.” Hey, I’m not saying that Mr. or Ms. Holiday Hopeful isn’t as possible or as real as Santa Claus. (My motto: ‘I no longer count on nor discount any possibility.’) Just don’t let childhood and childlike longings transform your internal memories and voices into a frantic, salivating, love-crazed inner child.

The key to managing this friction: gently embrace, don’t cling, to magical memories. Discover a blend of magical realism that helps you balance love, work and play in the present.

2. Family.
There are so many permutations in families these days, it’s got to get a bit confusing. For separated families, a poignant question: which parent (or grandparents) will we be with for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, for New Years? I vividly remember an eight-year old boy’s lament: ‘Why can’t we just be one family again?’

Another common family issue is when a holiday gathering turns into a competitive arena for sibling rivalry, along with a desire for long-standing recognition and approval. And if you find in these family therapy sessions, I mean holiday reunions, that you can’t resist trying to change the attitude and behavior of the parent (sibling or child) that “makes you crazy,” patterns which have resisted influence attempts for decades ... maybe there’s only one solution. Have you thought about getting far out of town for the holidays?

3. Food.
The holidays turn most of us into bingeaholics. Running helter skelter, not stopping for lunch, overdosing on the cookies and chocolate that a colleague has brought to work. And discipline at a party is a contradiction in terms. (Just ask the Democrats.) This caloric chaos is not surprising considering the biggest role model of the holidays looks like he hasn’t met a single gram of fat in two hundred years that he doesn’t love. Hey, Santa Claus hasn’t been doing his Jane Fonda workouts either. But wait ... appoint a designated nagger, who will gently remind you when you are overdoing it. Don’t chat hovering around the buffet table. Take reasonable portions and move away. Now replace food with some food for thought.

And face it, no matter what you do, or don’t do, you are likely to add some pounds on the holidays. So go to the malls and walk briskly for thirty minutes before you start the shopping splurge. You’ll spend less and, probably, will eat less as well.

4. Finances.
The holidays heighten our monetary consciousness – from the end of the year financial and psychological accounting (did we meet our financial/family security and career goals?) to the never-ending list of holiday gifts. And as the great Russian novelist, Doestoyevsky, noted: “Consciousness is depression!”

For the first issue, seek a budget counselor, a CPA, a career counselor or even a mental health specialist. For the last, ‘just say no’ to your child’s ‘toy lust.’

Give your child choices; explain why there are limits. Try this holiday mantra: ‘Presence precedes presents.’ This season, invest time, not just money.

For big families, be creative. Divide up the gift list with other relatives. You shouldn’t have to buy something for everyone. Making a gift definitely adds a personal touch.

And, finally, don’t overlook a very important person. Get a special gift for yourself.

So the holidays may be a stressful time; a time of feelings of loss and sadness. But with a little higher power humor it also, can be a source of creative expression and sharing. Here’s my gift to you:

bulletDouble-Edged Depression
bulletWaves of sadness
bulletRaging river of fear
bulletWhirlpooling madness
bulletTill I disappear into the depths of primal pain
bulletThen again...no pain, no gain.
bulletDepression, depression Is it chemistry or confession? Depression, depression Dark side of perfection!
bulletClimbing icy spires
bulletDancing at the ledge
bulletThe phoenix only rises
bulletOn the jagged edge
bulletIn a world of highs and lows
bulletHey, the cosmos ebbs and flows.
bulletDepression, depression It’s electrifried obsession High flying depression Exalted regression?
bulletSo I’m pumping iron and Prozac, too
bulletWhat else can a real man do?
bulletIn a life of muted dreams, how about a primal SCREAM?
bulletDepression, depression Even inner child rejection Depression, depression Hallelujah for creative expression!

Mark Gorkin, “The Stress Doc” ™, is a licensed clinical social worker, a popular keynote speaker, motivational humorist, a team building consultant, and is America Online’s “Online Psychohumorist” ™. He is also the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger; www.stressdoc.com.