Actually, not really.
I've been thinking A LOT about stress recently, but don't take that to mean that I've been feeling stressed out. This time of year it is easy to become overwhelmed and stressed out, but luckily, I haven't had that feeling yet. A few years ago, I made a conscious decision to try and say "no" to things during the holiday season, and try to hunker down a bit, and slow down our lives. It's hard to do when the rest of the modern world seems to be speeding up out of control (even my email inbox has doubled in size with the sheer volume of emails from businesses trying to capture my holiday shopping!!), but we try to make a valiant effort to stand up against the seemingly chaotic ride of the commercialized version of the holiday season. We limit the amount of Christmas parties we go to. There are no extra lessons or playdates, unless mandatory. There are no mammoth shopping trips (at least not with the kids in tow - I tend to make one and get all of our shopping done at once).
Instead, what there IS involves extra downtime at home. We're only doing 2 days of lessons a week during Advent - the other 3 days are devoted to preparing for Christmas. We've been learning about Advent: what it is in the Church's calendar, what it means, what it's supposed to be for. As the boys learn, they've been a bit confused. They don't really understand why there is so much Christmas stuff on TV, or why everyone has their lights up the minute the Thanksgiving leftovers are put away into the fridge, or why we're not decorating inside the house yet. The past four years, we'd based that mostly on Mike's work schedule, as he would typically only get one weekend off for the entire month before Christmas, so we weren't quite as rigid on the reasons behind separating Advent and Christmas. This year, though, he's got more time, and we've decided to emphasis one before the other, as the Church does. The boys seem to be accepting of it....but not fully comprehending it.
We're so stressed during this season, as a society. Look around the grocery store even, or dare to enter a mall. Tempers flare more quickly, moods are darker (although it wouldn't seem like it with all the sparkly, happy decorations everywhere!), conversations seem terse and snippy amongst people waiting in lines. If it's the happiest time of the year, why isn't everyone happy? It seems that everyone I meet is complaining - they're tired from having to stay up late wrapping gifts or worse, trying to figure out what to buy people; they've just returned from a get-together and got into a disagreement with Aunt So-and-So; they're stressed about the number of commitments they have coming up; they're stressed about finances and how to pay for their kids' gifts. It doesn't seem like the happiest time of the year to me.....
You guys know that I like to watch documentaries during my workouts. I'm a dork, through and through, and like boring stuff like that. The other day, I watched an interesting short documentary about stress and what it does to the human body. The effects of stress were immense: even deteriorating nerve endings and brain cells. Stress is not meant to be a chronic condition - it's meant to save us from an acute danger. The effects of living with chronic stress are amazing, even if it is for a "short" holiday period.
So how can we counteract this seemingly overwhelming stress of the holiday season? It's not healthy for us, and I would argue that it's not healthy for our relationships and for those around us. As the mother of our little family, I feel a distinct responsibility for lowering the stress level of our household. My husband may be the leader of the family......but I'm the one who makes the house run smoothly. I'm the one who will have the most influence on the stress that my children feel, and therefore, on their health. Stress causes your immune system to run a little less efficiently - the last thing I want to have happen to my little asthmatic during cold and flu season. So, how can I decrease the stress level in my family?
For us, it all comes down to priorities:
- EVERYONE gets three gifts for Christmas. That's it. None of this running around, trying to fill up under the Christmas tree. I was amazed when we watched the slides from my mother-in-law's childhood (blog about that here), when I started looking at the volume of Christmas gifts under the Christmas tree. It was probably half of what we typically have under our tree....and they had 6 more kids in their family!! Our kids, as a society, are given too much each Christmas, I would venture to say. Try to simplify one year - I would guess that if you spend TIME together as a family during when you would have been shopping, your kids will have a better Christmas, overall.
- Try to say no to a few invites. Believe it or not, it is okay to say no. What has helped me in accepting that it is alright to turn invitations down was recognizing that turning down an invite was directly improving my family's happiness and peace during the holidays. If I said yes to something before that realization, it was mostly out of guilt. I didn't want to "offend" someone by turning them down. But in reality, what I was doing was putting someone else ahead of my own family, over and over and over again. Once I realized what my decisions were doing...it was much easier to choose to stay home. We do still attend some things, but we discern them a little more carefully now.
- If you homeschool, try to decrease or even take time off during Advent. This is our first year doing so, since it's our first year homeschooling, but this was one piece of advice given over and over to me by seasoned homeschooling moms. Even though we're already a week in, I'm seeing the fruits of their wisdom. Everything outside of the home is speeding up - the music seems more hectic, it's more crowded wherever we go, everyone seems focused on deadlines, etc - and having time each week that is unscheduled has really helped our emotional state. It means that I will have to tack a few weeks onto the end of the year, but we still will finish school in June, and to me, that is a reasonable trade-off.
- Add in some time to do something for someone ELSE. This could be someone in your own house, or a stranger outside of it. For us, it's translated into things like sending cards and homemade gifts to relatives we don't speak to often, or donating food/items to our church's program for the needy, or making meals for friends who need an extra hand right now. With the reduction of school tasks that need to be completed, we've got more time to fill with charitable acts. Both the documentary on stress, and Blessed JPII talk about the good that compassion and charity can bring into our lives. For the medical/stress movie, acts of care and compassion cause those frayed nerve endings to repair themselves. JPII talks about one of the reasons for suffering being to allow someone else (in this case, it would be us) to grow in holiness and to move closer to salvation. Isn't that something we all want? Instead of giving into the the constant mantra of "me, me, me...gimme, gimme, gimme...I want, I want, I want" that seems to be bombarding us from everywhere during this time of year....stand up against it and spend the majority of your holiday season doing good works for other people. The physical and mental effects that these acts will have on you - not to mention the spiritual benefits - will amaze you.
- Last, but definitely not least, make a commitment to spend more time in prayer every day. It seems counter-intuitive: that adding something time consuming into your day will actually help relieve your stress, but, I promise you.......it WILL. If you've never said a daily rosary before now, give it a try (takes about 20 minutes). If you've never prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet, try to do so daily now (only takes about 10 minutes). I promise you - Mary will not let you down, and she WILL reward you for being obedient to her wishes. Try it for a week....I challenge you!
I hear my little rascals stirring now (it's early in the morning), so I should probably sign off. I encourage you to try and simplify this holiday season. Take a stand against the over-commercialization of Christmas. Even if you're not faithful to a certain religion, I challenge you to stand up against the rampant selfishness and greediness that permeates the advertising and the pressures of our modern society during the holidays. Remind yourself that it shouldn't be about how much you get or how much money you spend, but how many lives you improve around you. Focus on increasing the number of smiles you see in a day.....make someone laugh.....help them to better their environment.....and try to continue on PAST the holidays, when the social organizations that help them need it the most. I think you'll start to find yourself looking forward to the holidays again, like we did when we were kids.