Finding Balance: ‘Tis the season for overwhelming stress

Many of us find the holiday season stressful. This is the time of year when family responsibilities, work expectations, the New Hampshire weather, our social calendars and unrealistic expectations combine to create a toxic environment in both our work and home lives.

Several studies over the last few years have revealed some interesting facts about the “most wonderful time of the year.”

For example, the U.S. ranks highest in the world for seasonal stress. Although other nations have holiday traditions and celebrations, we have the distinction of piling on the stress best at the holidays as measured by stress-related illnesses and heart disease.

Do you remember the devastating stress that Scrooge helped inflict on his underling, Bob Cratchit in “A Christmas Carol”? Remember how Cratchit was worried sick about trying to meet the demands of an unrelenting boss while balancing the illness of his son and the pressure to provide a holiday for his family? Where stress is concerned, according to the research, Dickens knew what he was talking about.

One recent study of holiday stress among U.S. employees indicated that worries about money, illness and workload increase, particularly among subordinate workers as distinguished from bosses and supervisors, during this time of year. So even though Scrooge was having bad dreams, Cratchit was the one really feeling the seasonal stress.

Workplace stress increases during this time of the year. Just having some time away from work doesn’t necessarily reduce work-associated stress. Many people use their time off to worry about what they left sitting on their desks.

Another factor contributing to seasonal stress is that our behavior changes during the holidays. Studies indicate that people in the United States become more sedentary during this season and tend to manage stress by watching TV, sleeping, eating and drinking. Comfort eating and alcohol binging take a toll on all of our stress-regulating systems.

Some clear guidelines

While we’re listing reasons for seasonal stress, let’s not forget those family gatherings. Unrealistic expectations, painful childhood memories, old emotional scars and personal myths about how the “perfect” family would act at the “perfect” holiday time combine to ensure that many of us will be disappointed.

So what can we do (short of waiting for our Scrooges to change their behavior)? We can’t control the New Hampshire weather that complicates our stress by giving us less sunshine and encouraging sedentary habits, but research does indicate some clear guidelines to help us manage our seasonal stress:

• Forget about perfection. Some of our stress is self-induced, fueled by a constant barrage of media that provides an unrealistic portrait of work and family holiday life. Do what you can, do what makes you feel good about yourself, and create your own standards. There is no right or wrong way to celebrate.

• Increase instead of abandoning healthy habits. Spend more time outdoors exercising or simply spend time with yourself. Moderate your consumption (especially of alcohol) and you will help moderate your stress.

• Find meaning without money. Give random acts of kindness this season rather than expensive gifts. Research shows that volunteering, sharing time with friends and loved ones, or simply doing something nice for a neighbor or a stranger not only reduces stress, but actually does your heart good.

• Learn to decline. Many businesses increase production at this time of year and many workers take extended vacation time, so often employers look to who is left to fill in. Do your share, but don’t get taken advantage of at work. Know when to say no to extra duties and overtime.

• Live within your means. We are experiencing the worst economic downturn for quite some time. Don’t give in to the pressure to use credit to buy things that will quickly become more objects gathering dust. Don’t succumb to the barrage of advertising designed to make you feel guilty if you don’t buy more stuff for yourself and your family.

• Play with friends, co-workers and family. A sense of play, of humor and of fun will ease stressful situations. Plan time to do things that just make everyone laugh.

• Count your blessings and remain hopeful. In spite of everything, the New Year has always been a symbol of hope.

Here’s my wish for each of you this holiday season: Have success at work, a healthy family and some balance between the two!

Dr. Malcolm Smith is family life and family policy specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and teaches in the UNH Family Studies Program. He can be reached at 603-862-7008 or