Holiday Stress and the Renewal of Life

by Timothy R. Walker, Ph.D

The Holiday season can be a very stressful time. The pervasive expectation that we should be happy, the gift giving frenzy which has been co-opted by the materialistic capitalist greed machine, forced family gatherings, the overeating and over drinking, the hassles and pains of dealing with other people, the haunting memories of past Christmases good or bad, hosting and entertaining, trying to get the tree and decor just right, the anxiety of unstructured time off from work or school, cabin fever, being cooped up in a house with family and relatives, sugar highs and lows, and a general feeling of depression can all contribute to stress over the holiday season.

There are many simple and effective ways to counter all of these holiday stressors, such as regular exercise, moderation in food and drink, slowing down, working to be clear about expectations, quiet time alone and many others. However rather than simply list some holiday stress- busting suggestions which people may already know I would like to take this opportunity to address this issue of holiday stress from a deeper place of meaning, believing that sometimes a shift in understanding can be more powerful than behavioural tinkering.

In the pre-Christian era, this time of year was reserved for celebrations which acknowledged the winter solstice, and those darkest few weeks of the year on either side of this, the longest night which marks the birth of winter. One of our problems in this our post industrial, post-modern world is how dissociated we have become from the natural rhythms of our environment, rhythms marked by the sun, the earth, and the moon. The ancients knew that to mark this dark period of the year as a special time was to honour our connection to the greater cycles in which our bodies and our psyches participate like droplets in the ocean tides. Our contemporary tendency to separate ourselves from nature, thinking that we can control her, even within ourselves, has backfired again and again.

The scientific validation around “the fact” that the experience of less sunlight can be associated with depression is a case in point. Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD has been widely researched, published and now included as a sub category of depression in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as well as being assimilated within the pop-psychology mindset of our culture. Nevertheless the jury is still out when it comes to statistically significant empirical evidence, as multiple studies have mixed findings. As usual, in the inexact science of human beings and their concept of “depression”, and the number of variables which can not be controlled for, is so numerous as to make most “scientific” investigations inconclusive, and in my opinion, even futile.

Furthermore, the “therapy” of exposure to artificial full spectrum light or a trip to the tropics, somehow, to my mind, misses a deeper question. Perhaps, there is a greater meaning and purpose underlying our so-called “depression” which occurs in response to less light? The mythological meaning ascribed by ancient wisdom traditions would be to acknowledge that life is made up of many cycles and that personally and psychologically we cycle with the seasons through a process of gradual death, rebirth, growth and flourishing (fall, winter, spring summer).

In order for us to learn and grow on the deepest of levels that integrate body, mind and spirit, we have a fundamental need to release the past, that is, our past ways of conceiving of ourselves (self image/identity) and old ways of conceiving of our world. If we don’t let go, regularly releasing on a mental/spiritual level, like the snake sloughing off its skin, then we stay stuck in the limitations of old beliefs, habits and thought patterns.

The gradual period of increasing darkness that occurs through the fall facilitates a natural period of withdrawal and reflection, a period to gently slough off the skin of the old year. This time for letting go is a period of mourning, a soft and deeply felt personal mourning of the old you. If we traverse this gentle mourning period well by enjoying it, that is, seeing the joy in the warmth of melancholy, which is an essential colour in the emotional spectrum, then we ready ourselves for a fresh rebirth. This rebirth is cosmically enacted with the returning of the light at the winter solstice and is symbolically presented as well in the birth of the Christ child.

Given that this may be at least one interpretation of the underlying meaning of the process that occurs at this time of year, think for a moment how it is that we as a culture generally relate to it. In general mourning, sadness, death, and the other dreaded d-word, depression, (which has taken on such a disproportionately bizarre significance in our culture) are all shunned as negative feelings, which, as one pop psychological approach states, “we cannot afford to tolerate”. The pervasive prescribing of antidepressant medication like Prozac is a symptom of this fear we have of the darker emotions. The general tendency to ostracize an essential part of our growth and development cycle, essentially halts the process and causes no end of confusion and increased suffering.

The image of celebration that the media hype and advertising promotes over the holidays, that of presents, presents, presents and a perpetual party of fun and laughter, sexual excitement and lots of alcohol constantly flowing seems to me a kind of childish wishful thinking driven by fear and denial. And to the extent to which people try to pump them selves up into living this image out, they will be haunted by the shadow that they are avoiding. The extent to which we make natural melancholy the enemy and repress it, we empower its truly dark and negative cousins which we might call despair and alienation. I think that on a deep level the stress of the holidays has this as its foundation. If this is true, how can we work with it rather than against it? Once again traditional cultures and certain healthy strains within our own culture are repositories of wisdom telling us how to deal with the stress of this time of year.

The first suggestion is to honour your body and soul in their natural need for more sleep at this time of year. Darkness is not just a metaphor, it is a reality and our tendency to ward it off with electric lights, television, or surfing the internet puts us out of harmony with our greater environment. That is not to say that a certain amount of late night celebrations or catching up on your reading is wrong, rather that in general we need more sleep at this time of year both to rest the body and to dream. Dreaming is essential in working through the “sloughing off period” as well as the early rebirth period (remember how much babies need to sleep). The unconscious mind or what we might call the dream-body or soul has its own way of negotiating change and transition in the dream life. In general people in our culture are chronically sleep deprived anyway so this time of year presents an excellent opportunity to pay off our sleep debt and maybe even a chance to put some in the bank. If you listen carefully to nature she is saying, “yes, go ahead, do like the bears”.

Gathering with family and friends promotes a sense of connection to a larger community and has deeper significance than we usually tend to think. Group celebrations, whether they are formal and religious or simple private rituals and traditions, cradle our vulnerable psychic death and rebirth in a familiar and safe context, which facilitates the transition. Balancing this connected time with ample time to be alone is also important (half and half is a good rule of thumb) and taking some time alone for silent contemplation is most helpful in ushering along the transition.

Music, singing and dancing have been essential aspects of celebration and soul renewal since time immemorial. Part of the problem in our media-rich culture is that we tend to let other people make the music or do the dancing for us, which leaves us feeling hollow and unfulfilled. No matter what your musical ability, singing can lift your spirits. The very word spirit comes from the Latin word for breath and there is something totally uplifting and holy that happens when you vibrate your vocal chords with the breath and belt out a good song. Cape Bretoners with their ceileidhs know the warmth and good cheer that circulates when everyone participates in the making of music, more for the fun of it than for the perfect note.

Lastly a note on drinking: Though it may seem unnecessary to state it, drinking in moderation has its place. Joining together with people and loosening up our normal self-conscious restrictions can be a very healthy process of connecting on a heart level with others. Whether it be at the ubiquitous Christmas office party or at the sometimes strained and staid family gathering, if we choose to use alcohol wisely, noticing how it affects our body, mind and heart, and then consciously engage in reaching out to make meaningful connections with others, we can turn the poison of alcohol into a sort of tonic for the soul. Overindulgence, on the other hand, is like soul murder and is also deadly for the body in more ways than one. A certain segment of the population suffers from the unacknowledged stress that is a natural consequence of bouts of heavy drinking holidays or no holidays. Hangovers aside, the body’s tendency to find a balance after you have taken any drug has the effect with alcohol of producing a prolonged state of tension and anxiety which can often lead to the tendency to use more alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate, which of course starts a vicious cycle. Drinking wisely also includes noticing this backlash as the body and psyche re-balance, and holding the discomfort in awareness without trying to escape it.

Once we understand that this time of the year, in the northern latitudes especially, has to do with allowing a gentle psychological and spiritual transformation to occur with a sense of bitter-sweet melancholy and a rebirth into a new year of increasing light, we can let it be. This letting be, I believe, could be the best antidote to holiday stress.