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’Tis the Season for Stress?

Advice for a merrier Christmas from a Catholic therapist

By Gabriel Somarriba, Psy.D.

In the Gospel reading from the First Sunday of Advent, Jesus warns his disciples to “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.”

With our modern Christmas season known for shopping and partying, we should heed the Lord and take a more temperate approach to Advent. In particular, unplugging from the commercialization of the holiday season will help put Advent back in its proper place—a time of devout preparation and expectant delight for the First Coming of Jesus.

How real is Christmas stress? Findings from a 2008 poll on holiday stress conducted by the American Psychological Association, revealed that eight out of ten Americans anticipated stress during the holiday season. A new and growing trend to “simplify Christmas” is evidence that many people are trying to escape the excess. Traveling, traffic, and time with uncomfortable family situations are also contributing factors to high stress levels during holidays.

If left unaddressed, chronic stress can lead to physical symptoms like elevated blood pressure, chest pain, sleep problems, and worsen already preexisting conditions, such as diabetes. Untreated stress can also lead to higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse. Thus, it’s worth our guarding against stress in our lives.

Here are few suggestions for how we can set an Advent state of mind for the Catholic home and keep stress levels low.

Avoid Network Television
Don’t let the tube dictate your schedule. When we channel surf carelessly, we are bombarded by commercialism—by what network television and advertisers want us to think Christmas is all about. Advent is lost in the smorgasbord of materialism and greed. Instead of tuning into network television, we are better off relying on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and DVDs from the library, or DVR-recorded programming. Doing so puts us more in the driver’s seat of what we expose ourselves and our family to.

We can plan to watch holiday classics like A Christmas StoryIt’s a Wonderful Life, Mickey’s Christmas CarolJoyeux Noel, and musical concerts aired on EWTN, whenever and wherever we want. Make your own Christmas list of media offering and if you let your kids help with the planning they’ll be more likely to stick to the schedule.

Light an Advent Wreath
The Advent wreath is an ancient Christian tradition that symbolizes the passage of the four weeks of Advent in the liturgical calendar. A wreath in the home calls to mind the wreath in the church, making your domestic church, mentioned often by Pope Francis, more real for every family member. A good time to light the wreath is during dinner or family prayer time. The flickering flames create a peaceful ambience that has been shown to reduce stress and increase our peace the closer we get to Christmas.

Advent Tree (the pre-Christmas tree)
The past couple years my wife and I have gotten a Christmas tree during the Advent season, but we don’t fully decorated it until Christmas Eve. Instead, we decorate the tree with purple ornaments and purple lights. Then on Christmas Eve, we pull out a fuller variety of Christmas ornaments and lights—along with the baby Jesus to add to the Nativity Scene—and make the transition to Christmas.

The antidote to “commercial Christmas,” which can be very anxiety-producing, is to embrace the slowing down that is a big part of what Advent is about. Now is a time for preparation and reflection, and with these small suggestions, you can make Christmas less stressful and more merry.

Gabriel Somarriba, Psy.D., is a Catholic psychotherapist living in northeast Ohio with his wife and their two children.