American Thanksgiving is upon us and those of you who live in the US will be celebrating with family, friends and the traditional turkey dinner. This marks the beginning of the holiday season which extends from Thanksgiving straight through to New Year’s Eve. This is a time of reflection over the past year as well as a time of celebration and connection with those who we love and care about. Unfortunately, it is also a time of great stress for many.
What is the cause of this stress? There are several sources of holiday stress including having to get together with family members who we do not get along with, preparing for and hosting get togethers and parties, buying the right Christmas gifts for everyone on our list, fighting traffic and crowds during our shopping excursions for those gifts and the stress of completing work projects and meeting work deadlines before the end of the year.
We also assume that the holidays are a joyous time for most and do not realize that there are a lot of people out there who are truly lonely and isolated and do not have close family or friends who they can enjoy the holidays with. These people often get overlooked even by co-workers and acquaintances because everyone is so consumed by their own stresses and plans for the holidays. So how do we combat this onslaught of stress and overwhelm that accompanies the holidays?
The first step is to focus on the real reason we celebrate these holidays and not what society dictates to us. What do I mean by this? The holidays are a special time but often the focus becomes the form that they take, not their true meaning. There is too much emphasis placed on throwing the perfect get together, purchasing the right gift, making sure you’re invited to and attend all the important holiday parties, pleasing people who you do not care about and so on and so forth.
The fact of the matter is that this focus on the outer form of the holidays hijacks you from their true meaning and purpose which is to spend time with people who you love and care about with appreciation for how they have enriched your life. This deeper meaning is often lost in the hustle and bustle that usually accompanies the holidays. So bring back your attention to the real reason you celebrate the holidays as mentioned above.
The second step is to not focus on pleasing others but on experiencing others. What do I mean by this? Too often people are concerned about purchasing the perfect gift, being nice to those who they do not necessarily get along with and doing what others expect them to do. This is a surefire recipe for increasing the effects of stress which can depress the immune system, lead to chronic inflammation and, eventually, a chronic illness.
Instead live into the experience of being with the people who you care about. Truly listen to them when they talk to you and be in the present moment when you are with them. Even if you have to spend time with those who you do not get along with, send them nothing but love and compassion with no thought of receiving anything in return. If you are able to do this with no expectations, you will cultivate the feelings of love, joy and compassion which will surpass any physical gift that you can receive.
Another aspect of experiencing others is to reach out to those who may be lonely and not be looking forward to the holidays for whatever reason whether it is being estranged from their families or having no families or friends to spend time with. These people are usually not too hard to find. You need to reach out to them and ask them how they are doing and truly mean it. Ask them if they need to talk about anything or if they want to spend time over coffee. You may think that you do not have the time to do this but the rewards for reaching out to those who need connection the most will far outweigh any time you feel that you will lose by doing this.
The third step, I’d like to discuss, is taking time for yourself during the holidays. We often become so focused on pleasing and serving others, our families, our friends and acquaintances that we tend to neglect the most important factor through our holiday experiences which is ourselves as individuals. Besides celebrating with loved ones, we need to take time to truly be with ourselves.
This can take various forms including going for a nature walk, journaling on our thoughts, feelings and experiences, exercising, meditating, reading a good book, reflecting on the past year or simply contemplating the meaning of our lives. By doing this we will create personal space which will give us a sense of wellbeing, clarity of purpose, help us prioritize your goals and live into the greater vision for our lives.
In summary, if you focus on the real reason you celebrate the holidays, which is to spend time with people who you love and care about, truly experience them by being with them in the present moment, even if you don’t get along with them and taking personal time for yourself throughout the holidays, you will increase your enjoyment of the holiday season and alleviate the stress that this time of the year brings.
I wish you all a wonderful holiday season!
Nauman Naeem MD FCCP FRCPC