Avoiding Holiday Stress

by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP

Insight into the true sources of holiday stress for women, and how to make it through the holiday season happier and healthier.

Behind the joy and beauty of the holidays is tremendous stress for women. Every year from Thanksgiving to Christmas women pour into our medical practice with physical manifestations of stress like heavy or irregular bleeding. Many feel depressed. Other women call in reporting that their menopause symptoms have roared back to life again — they have no idea why. And how many of us have friends or relatives who get sick every Christmas?

From the thousands of women whose lives I’ve shared as their health practitioner, and from my own personal experience as a daughter, wife and mother, I’ve come to understand that holiday stress arises from our own personal histories. It’s as though we are scripted, both in our actions and our reactions.

Luckily, we all have the power to rewrite our inner holiday scripts, just as we have the choice to provide our bodies with additional support during this demanding time. I’d like to explain how.

The power of the past

Outwardly it may appear that we are all exposed to the same stressful seasonal factors: overeating, overspending, drinking too much, holiday travel, staying up too late, and family dramas. But some of us sail through the holidays in good cheer and health while others just feel awful. Obviously external factors make up only part of the story.

Studies have proven without a doubt that past emotional experiences affect our health. This becomes more obvious at this time of year, when so many of us try to incorporate family tradition — or lack of one — into our own holiday. Not only are we trying to stage a major production (often all by ourselves!) but we are unwittingly following a script, whether we like it or not. I came to understand this the Christmas after my mother died. Up until then, the holidays were just an exhausting, debilitating enterprise.

When my mother was a child, she moved around a lot and never had any family Christmas tradition. Then as I grew up in Australia, I watched her drive herself wild each year, creating the perfect Christmas for all of us. She hand-made our gifts and painstakingly crafted realistic pine Christmas trees (which don’t grow in my native soil). We lived 30 minutes — by ferry — from the nearest town and still my mother managed to create a magical Christmas feast that must have taken several trips to supply. My memories of my father at this time were of the time he spent with us keeping us out of my mother’s hair.

I loved Christmas Day as a child — who wouldn’t? And Christmas to me was connected with my mother’s effort. So when I became a mother, guess what? I spent this time of year in a similar frenzy, spending every free moment recreating the legendary Christmases of my youth. I did it because I believed that was what a mother was supposed to do. By the time my family finally sat down to Christmas dinner, I felt so sick and exhausted I could barely pick up my fork. I was hesitant to admit how bad I felt because I never remembered my mother complaining.

The year after my mother died was the first year that my family and I celebrated our own version of Christmas. I chose to celebrate a few of my mother’s traditions, but we mostly forged our own. And you know what? It was fantastic!

I missed my mother, but I felt as if a 50-pound weight had been lifted from my chest. I didn’t have anything to prove anymore. Having my own Christmas did not weaken the memories of my mother or my childhood, but enhanced them. And, more importantly, my family came together on our own terms, in the present — not as a reflection of my past.

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