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Stuart Shanker D.Phil.
Stuart Shanker D.Phil.

Self-Reg and Holiday Stress: Restoring the Balance

We go into these holidays with exceptionally high levels of stress.

I rather suspect that the above picture is so iconic that everyone will immediately recognize the film that it’s from. But even if there are some who don’t, I’m sure they will still get the point. Because one way or another, we‘ve all experienced a version of the holiday frenzy so vividly captured here.

Back in 2006, the polling firm GQR published a detailed analysis of “Holiday Stress” [Holiday Stress]. Their big finding was much as you’d expect: a large percentage (38%) report that their stress increases over the holidays, for all the obvious reasons: too much to do; over-spending; worrying about the commercialization of Christmas; the pressures of giving and getting gifts; feuding with family members; eating and drinking too much. But what is most striking about the study is how few report a decrease in their stress (8%) or no change at all (54%).

To some extent what we have here is simply an example of the basic Self-Reg precept: You have to be calm in order to enjoy being calm. If we’re over-stressed going into the holidays we’re likely to be over-stressed coming out. But if you think about it, the GQR finding is still a little surprising; after all, the holidays are supposed to afford a big dip in stress.

That seems to have been the whole point of the ancient winter solstice festivals. These took place when it’s cold and dark and the earth is barren and hard. These conditions are hard on human minds and bodies. Hence the emphasis on bright light and the celebration of nature – which, with our typical modern efficiency, we combine by stringing bulbs around a Christmas tree. It’s precisely because we find it energizing that we decorate our houses with strings of bright and colored lights (even though this is becoming something of a competition these days, which undoes the benefits of the stress-reduction).

The point is that the winter festivals constituted a break from the harsh demands of day-to-day existence. But it was much more than just a respite: it was a shared experience that was meant to serve a higher purpose: nurture the spiritual as well as the psychological needs of the group. Get the balance right and we are left feeling revitalized and ready to face a new year with optimism and vigor. That is precisely what neuroscience is telling us: that altruism and social harmony are every bit as important as rest and relaxation for wellbeing [The Altruistic Brain]. And then the Romans took over.

The Romans were just a little too enthusiastic about the “festivities” part of their festivals. The Saturnalia, Natalis Invicti, and January Kalends became an excuse for a week of debauchery. Lucian, a second century satirist, bewailed the fact that: “The serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands.” Libanius, writing in the fourth-century, described how “The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his pence, becomes suddenly extravagant. .... The Kalends festival banishes all that is connected with toil, and allows men to give themselves up to undisturbed enjoyment.”

Here we thought the problem today was simply due to all the hype and rampant materialism. That is no doubt a significant element in the stress we feel, but the problem goes deeper; for retailers aren’t so much creating as shaping – and, of course, amplifying – our impulse to buy or binge (and there are all sorts of psychological factors at play here [Gifts as Economic Signals and Social Symbols]. This is what Eddie Bernays figured out: how to capitalize on hidden desires [The Father of Spin]. But the more that mindlessness takes over, the more the delicate balance between prosocial and psychological benefit is pushed out of whack.

That’s pretty much where we are today: following resolutely in Roman footsteps. Something as inane as the custom of pulling Christmas crackers is a lingering residue of a practice that dates as far back as the Kalends festival in late Antiquity. (The paper crown inside the cracker pays homage to the crown that the Lord of Misrule wore.) Modern celebrations are actually pretty tame compared to what took place back then, and even more so in the Middle Ages. In fact, it was because things were getting so out of control that the Puritans waged war on Christmas [The Puritan War on Christmas].

To this day we remain just as conflicted about the holidays as they were in the 17th century. On the one hand, we cherish the prosocial values that the “haligdæges” bring to the fore: peace, charity, and benevolence. According to the GQR study, the most important aspect of the holidays remains the opportunity to connect or reconnect with friends and family. On the other hand, we prize the positive emotions that the holidays generate: the feelings of love, happiness, and excitement. But swing too far towards the pleasure-seeking side of the occasion and you sacrifice the prosocial; for the last thing that you feel when you’re overstressed is peaceful, charitable and benevolent.

The question that Libanius found so puzzling is of equally great import to Self-Reg: Why, after being so disciplined over the course of the year, is there this sudden impulse to splurge or overeat? The answer lies in the fact that self-control is itself a stress, and the more we exercise it the more depleted we become [Ego Depletion]. This is a big reason why the holidays remain a time when we loosen the constraints: a momentary respite from the costs of self-denial and self-discipline. But loosen too much and there’s a price to be paid.

To take an all too well-known example, the average person gains between 3 and 5 pounds over the holidays, and it takes approximately 4 months to shed that extra weight. But then, maybe that’s actually a positive over the long run? That is, maybe one of the salutary effects of a bout of self-indulgence is that this serves as a reminder of the long-term benefits of exercising self-control (which is the whole point of delay of gratification studies). Hence the custom of New Year’s resolutions, which, again, can be traced back to the Romans’ January Kalends festival.

But then, why are so many relieved when the holidays are over, if not struggling with something grimmer (as is borne out by the sharp increase in internalizing disorders immediately following the holidays)? Why does instant gratification followed by still more instant gratification leave us frazzled rather than recharged? Irritable rather than mellow?

The answer lies in the effects of spiraling limbic arousal. As arousal escalates inhibition drops and impulsivity climbs: we look for the next stimulus, whether food, drink, or a loud and raucous party. Too much of this and we sink deep into low energy and high tension. In this state, time spent with family starts to feel like being locked inside a stress jar. Before you know it, you’re shouting at your kids and they’re screaming at each other.

So many of the physical, emotional, cognitive, social and prosocial stresses that we identify in Self-Reg are all present in the holidays, bouncing off and intensifying one another. Each stress on its own can be positive, even invigorating; but combine them all together and you can soon find yourself swept up in a stress cycle in which positive stresses actually turn negative.

Take the physical domain. All the rushing about, noise, crowds and bright lights can, in the right mood, be exhilarating; but taken to excess or when you’re feeling over-stressed and it starts to become aversive. The same with presents. It may not seem it as you fret over what to buy, but giving presents is neurobiologically and not just emotionally rewarding [The Science Behind the Power of Giving]. Neurobiology comes into play on the receiving end as well, although not in quite so positive a fashion. The moment the opioid effect wears off there’s a sudden spike in cortisol (to compensate for the energy that’s been expended), which is why the frenzy of tearing open presents on Christmas morning so often ends up in tears. Sadly, children’s stress-behavior leaves parents prey to the marketing message that meltdowns can be avoided by buying something ultra-expensive, or, as is depicted in that scene at Dudley’s birthday party in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, piling on the presents.

Cognitive stresses abound. We have to keep track of all the errands we need to complete; make difficult buying or cooking decisions; remember everyone’s likes and dislikes. What is especially interesting is how normally positive cognitive stresses turn negative because of the heightened arousal. I remember my daughter breaking down one Christmas as she tried to put together a Lego model. Ordinarily this was her favorite way to self-regulate; and, indeed, a few days later I saw her calmly building the model. But in the height of her Christmas day arousal she was unable to process the instructions and became so frustrated that she threw the pieces aside in a burst of anger.

The stress that proliferates in the social domain is especially important. Over-stimulation leads to the kind of emotional lability associated with a disorder like ADHD (before the DSM-III it was emotional lability and not problems with attention that was the primary symptom associated with ADHD). Erratic emotional swings present an especially difficult obstacle to co-regulation. It becomes harder to mind-read or to monitor the impact of your own behaviors on others. It’s harder to tolerate contrary ideas or opinions, or to keep your own thoughts to yourself.

Heightened stress in the social domain is especially important for the present moment in time; for we’re going into the holidays with unusually high levels of communal stress. The problem is, we humans are blessed with a sub-cortical paleo-mammalian brain that makes it hard to stay cohesive when we’re over-stressed. We become highly polarized in our thinking. We treat each other’s limbic utterances seriously. We become hyper-sensitive to tones of voice, facial expressions, gestures, body language. We are easily tripped into fight-or-flight.

But now more than ever we need to find peace, and we need to do this with each other, not in solitary fashion. That, of course, is the whole point of the holidays. Our need for social harmony is not just emotional, but neurobiological. We need to turn off our collective alarm in order to feel safe: only then will we be able to recruit our extraordinary prefrontal cortices to confront, together, the daunting challenges that lie ahead. But even though social solidarity is the lifeblood of our species, it’s by no means a given: especially when we are over-stressed!

It might be nothing more than a passing footnote but it bears noting that Libanius was writing at the very time that the Western Roman Empire was collapsing. Yet disturbing trajectories, whether personal or historical, can always be changed. The starting-point is to practice Self-Reg. We need to recognize the signs of escalating limbic arousal: in ourselves as much as in our family and friends. Identify and reduce the stressors. Find calm in ourselves and in each other. Turn the holidays into what they can and must be: A time of spiritual and psychological renewal. A chance to restore the balance in our lives.

About the Author
Stuart Shanker D.Phil.

Stuart Shanker, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of philosophy and psychology at York University and author of Self-Reg and Calm, Alert and Learning.

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