It has been a challenging, stressful, and long year navigating many uncertainties and changes. Between COVID-19, natural disasters, and political tensions — stress is far reaching. As we approach the holiday season, many traditions are impacted. For example, I have a lot of extended family close by and we are used to spending holidays together. Every year, we fight over the deviled eggs and look forward to playing cards and enjoying conversation. As a result of the pandemic, this was our first year staying home, and it was my job to make sure the dinner rolls didn’t burn. For many of us, these changes may bring a sense of loss, sadness, and anxiety as we try our best to compensate and make the best out of this holiday season.
Money and Stress
The holiday season brings a heightened stressor for many — money. In fact, money is the top stressor for many Americans. In 2015, more than 25 percent of Americans said they feel stressed about money some or all of the time. Further, 64 percent of adults say that money is a significant source of stress and over half have experienced some financial strain related to the pandemic, according to a recent Stress in America survey. Many have lost jobs or are working less. As a result, this can create additional pressure with holiday spending. We are all susceptible to financial stress. It may not be because of financial stability but rather our relationship with money. The topic of money can be a sense of family and relational strife and can take a significant toll on our mental and physical health.
This year has been far from “normal”. We need to give ourselves some grace especially as it comes to spending money this holiday season. Maybe you are in a position financially to “reward” yourself or others. That’s ok and no need to feel guilty about this choice. Maybe you need or want to get more creative with your gift giving this season. Many gifts are free and are oftentimes more meaningful. You can give your service or time, which provides value at no monetary cost to you. For instance, when my husband and I were first married, we made homemade birthday hats and wrapped things we already owned. Those memories and gifts from my kids are among my most treasured possessions.
When our body experiences a stressor, there may be many bodily changes including faster heart and breathing rate, tense muscles, and increased sweat production. Pay attention to these physical sensations in your body and look for clues that you might be holding onto stress. This could include changes in your mood or energy. This includes increased irritability and mood swings or physical symptoms such as muscle and headaches. I know when my stress level is high I “snap” quickly and easily. In other words, minor irritants contribute to big explosions. My mental and physical energy is drained and I find myself sleeping more than usual.
Impacts on Physical Health
When we are stressed, a hormone called cortisol is released as part of the fight-or-flight response. Stress can be healthy and and can motivate us to act. However, too much could result in chronic stress which is related to a compromised immune system. The immune system is our body’s natural defense to fight off illness and disease. When we experience chronic stress, the biochemicals usually released suppress the immune system and it doesn’t function as effectively. This makes our body more vulnerable to things like the common cold, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and even different cancers. Immune system function may be especially compromised by uncontrollable stress, which is the kind of stress that has been common for many of us this year.
I teach a Psychology class at a local community college. One of the discussions I have with my students, who are almost all Gen X, is about stress and cultural expectations. The American culture seems to reinforce people by valuing productivity and being “stressed out” over mental health. Sometimes it seems as if slowing down is seen as undesirable and linked with being lazy. Is it possible that some stress could be self-inflicted? What I mean by this is, do we need to look stressed or busy to avoid being perceived as unproductive?
How much is within our control?
I have thought about this question a lot, because I am someone who feels busy all the time. Most of the time I think I am my best self when my brain is going in different directions and I feel challenged in my daily life. Stopping to watch a movie and really focusing on it or going to a yoga class to practice self-care is really a hard thing for me to do. Are we really stressed about things beyond our control or are some of these within the scope of control? Are we making things bigger by not recognizing the impact of the need to look busy?
It’s a hard question but most of the students in my class seem to identify with this idea and agree that it is challenging to slow down with the cultural pressures and go-getter mentality. I know I “create” more work for myself sometimes and this realization is part of better stress management.
We don’t have control over everything in our lives, but we can work to manage stress more effectively.