©Arlene R. Taylor, PhD
Scene One – Hospital Employee Lounge
“Holidays are absolutely the worst!” exclaimed Nell, sinking into a recliner and covering her face with her hands. “Everyone but everyone scurrying around like rats abandoning a sinking ship. I wish I could avoid them all.”
“What?” asked a colleague, sipping coffee and nibbling on a donut. “Holidays, rats, or a sinking ship?” Everyone chuckled. Even Nell.
“I’m with you,” said Hans, sliding off his stool. “They’re all the pits: rats and holidays, to say nothing of a sinking ship!” He paused just long enough in his stride to throw a crumpled sandwich wrapper into the trash bin and hold open the door for an incoming lab tech.
“We sure see the outcome of holiday stress,” commented the nursing supervisor, opening a Chinese carry-out container. “Especially in the Emergency Department and Mental Health. Cardiology, too, for that matter. And the Intensive Care Unit... Most everywhere, actually.”
Scene Two – Hospital Staff Cafeteria
“How is it,” asked an endocrinologist of the next person in line as both inched along the serving line, “that the words holidays and stress have come to be inexorably linked together?”
The pathologist laughed. “Your guess is as good as mine―or better. After all, you see the people who’ve developed serious problems due to the negative stress but who are still alive. Me? I meet ‘em in the morgue after the stress has done for them but good.”
“You mean bad,” snorted a security officer, entering the conversation while waiting to swipe an employee badge. “Or after too much alcohol or other recreational drugs dulled their brains into driving dangerously.”
Scene Three – Hospital Chaplain’s Office
“Holiday stress. Bit of an oxymoron, that.” The visiting cleric sighed. “A holiday is supposed to be a time of happy relaxation. Stress, on the other hand, at least undesirable stress, connotes tension or anxiety from whatever has altered one’s equilibrium. Hard to relax when you’re in a state of bodily or mental tension. Impossible to have fun.”
The chaplain nodded. “I always put in some of my longest, saddest, and most stressful hours around holiday seasons.”
Are hospital employee lounges, staff cafeterias, and Chaplain offices the only places where conversations about holiday stress typically occur?
Similar scenarios abound. My brain’s opinion is that the stress has everything to do with expectations: yours as well as those of others. It often comes from just running on the treadmill of life and failing to take time to analyze not only what is really important to you personally but also how you can extract the meaning of the holiday season without getting caught up in all the decorating, merchandizing, and partying melodrama.
The paradox is that holiday frazzle can even come from following “traditions,” giving little if any thought to whether or not they still work for you—if they ever did.
A few decades ago, several bouts of post-New Year’s pneumonia brought me up short. (Laid me out short, I should say.) You can get out of a trap only when you figure out that you’re in one. I decided enough was enough.
So, what have I learned about holiday frazzlement, negative stress, and wellness?
- I learned that in life we rarely get what we deserve. More often we get what we expect. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The ancestor of every action is a thought.” I realized I had expected to become exhausted during the holidays. Of course, my brain and body obliged to make sure those thoughts―and expectations―materialized. So I changed my thoughts and my expectations.
- I learned that the most important reason for the holidays (for me) is to spend happy and relaxing quality time with good friends and family-of-choice. I stopped the myriad of holiday decorations, the frenetic shopping for gifts none of us needed, and the preparation of over-the-top meals loaded with traditional foods that went to waist. (Excuse the pun.)
- I learned that it was easier to reach consensus about holiday “defrazzling” than I’d thought it would be. Many held similar ideas but hadn’t wanted to say anything for fear of hurting the feelings of others. We got on the same page to (1) simplify decorating by letting the kids do it (maybe not what we were used to but good practice for them), (2) donate to local food banks in lieu of presents for the adults (the smaller children still find presents under the tree), and (3) prepare meals that are nostalgic and tasty but simpler and healthier. I stopped doing everything from scratch right before each holiday. Cooking ahead of time and freezing some of the dishes makes preparing the holiday meals pretty much of a breeze, relatively speaking. As Aesop said, “A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety.” And our “crusts” are always pretty good!
- I learned that holidays are times when I need to be even more centered about keeping my life in balance with physical exercise, plenty of water, and sufficient sleep. Add to that focusing mostly on the reason for the season. No one can do everything. You always give us something to get something. I now ask myself: “What will I need to give up to get that? What will it cost me? How much am I willing to pay?”
Did you find yourself frazzled during the holiday season just passed? If so, your best option is to break the cycle: De-link the all-too-predictable outcomes of holiday burnout. An ounce of prevention is worth ten pounds of cure after it’s over. Plan today for this year. Then, right after the next holiday season has passed, for the following year. Decide now what you are going to do differently then.
Metaphorically, turn down the volume on the seasonal noise, starting with negative conversation. In “The World According to Mister Rogers,” Fred Rogers calmly reminds both children and adults:
In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.
We humans spend a relatively short amount of time on this planet. What is your track record with holiday frazzle and stress? Remember: A rat race is for rats only!
Concentrating on what is really important can make all the difference in the world. You just might start anticipating holiday seasons with less dread, more delight. Have happy holiday seasons from here on out. Choose to live defrazzled.
I sure do—now!