"Big Four" Highlights


Tis the Season for Stress?

Advice for a merrier Christmas from a Catholic therapist
By Gabriel Somarriba, Psy.D.

In the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent, Jesus warns his disciples, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come … May [the Lord] not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’” (Mt 13:33-37).

With our modern “holiday season” of shopping and partying, we should heed the Lord and take a more temperate approach to Advent. 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? A poll on holiday stress by the American Psychological Association revealed that 8 out of 10 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. Travel, 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, we need to take steps against stress in our lives.

Here are few suggestions from our own family on how to create an Advent atmosphere at home and keep stress levels low.

Be Media Savvy: Don’t let the screens dictate your schedule. When we TV channel surf carelessly, we are bombarded by commercialism, by what networks and advertisers want us to think Christmas is all about. Advent is lost in the smorgasbord of materialism. For a better experience, watch on-demand or ­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 Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” or anything on EWTN, whenever and wherever we want. Make your own Christmas list of media offerings. 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. 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 atmosphere that has been shown to reduce stress and increase our peace the closer we get to Christmas.

Make an Advent Tree: Call it 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 a commercial Christmas, which can be very anxiety ­producing, is to slow down and take stock of your life as part of your Advent waiting. Now is a time for preparation and reflection, and with these small suggestions, you can make Christmas less stressful and more merry for you and your family.

Gabriel Somarriba, Psy.D., is a Catholic psycho