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Thomas J. Sims M.D.

Let's Unplug the Christmas Machine

Christmas has become a time of financial & emotional stress. Let's fix it

Source: Pixabay

The title of my blog series is "Under Extreme Circumstances". It’s based upon three principles of adaptation and survival my wife and I learned during the time I worked as a bush doctor in the wilds of the Alaska as told in my book “On Call in the Arctic”.

I'm taking a short detour from the main subject matter of my blog with this posting because I want to talk about Christmas. I chose to do this because sadly enough – Christmas is an extreme circumstance for many people.

In 1991 authors Jo Robinson and Jean Staeheli wrote the book "Unplug the Christmas Machine". It's a well written, powerful piece that both explains how commercialism and stress have depleted the Christmas spirit then advises how readers can put back love and joy into the Christmas season. The book has endured many reprints and it is still widely available today.

Christmas season is a busy time of the year and what should be a time for love and joy many has turned into a hectic period of stress, splurge, expense, and a cornucopia of attending activities that must be endured even though they are rarely looked forward to.

There’s shopping to be done, menus to be planned, cooking and baking to be finished before hordes of people arrive. Then there’s the never-ending scores of presents to be decided on, purchased, wrapped, and placed under the tree.

Black Friday has just happened, and many are still recovering from the exhausting stress that follows the activity.

Most distressing of all is the fact that Christmas has become the epidemic of commercialism and stress it now is – not because we want it to be – but because we have been conditioned into thinking so many of the “things” we feel must do are necessary to make Christmas merry for those we love!

What should Christmas be?

Christmas has become a time of both emotional stress and financial stress.

Wallet stress

A survey done by NBC News in November 2012 revealed that a staggering 45% of Americans would prefer to skip Christmas because it causes so much financial pressure and anxiety.
In a similar survey, 54% of people said they planned to spend $500 or less on Christmas while another 27% said they planned to spend somewhere between $500 to $1000 on Christmas presents.

Time Management stress

Christmas tends to cause ‘time management stress’ as well as wallet stress simply because there are so many things we want to get done, yet time is limited to do them.

Christmas Statistics -

Here’s some interesting statistics about holiday stress. Many are derived from a research study performed by Greenberg Guinlan Rosner Research in 2006

  • Holiday stress has a particular impact on women who generally take charge of holiday celebrations more than men.
  • Holiday stress has an impact on lower middle-income individuals.
  • Emotions run high during the holidays with many people reporting feelings of love and happiness far more at Christmas than at any other time of the year.
  • People in the USA are more likely to feel their stress increase rather than decrease during the holiday season.
  • During the holidays, stress takes on a different character than at other times of the year because both men and woman feel a duty to make the holidays the best they can for their families.
  • People love the holidays and look forward to them because it usually means they will be spending more time with loved ones than at any other time of the year.
  • Studies show two things people like least about the holidays are the financial burdens Christmas places on the budget and the emphasis on commercialism (such as unstoppable shopping) during the holidays.
  • More people reconnect with their spiritual faith during the Christmas season than at any other time of the year.
  • The New Year – coming shortly after Christmas – presents hope to many people who are looking for things to get better in times to come.
  • Young people (under the age of 30) are more likely to report a decrease in stress during the holidays than older persons.
  • The vast majority of people who experience stress during the holiday season take NO action to reduce their stress.

Holiday Depression and Suicide Rate - clearing up the myth

Suicide is a major public health problem in the United States. It’s the 10th leading cause of death in all Americans but it doesn’t increase during the holidays. The fact that suicides rise during the holiday season is a long-perpetuated myth.
It’s true, depression rates increase during winter, but not necessarily because it’s the Christmas season.

The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reports that the suicide rate is actually lowest in December. The rate peaks in the spring and fall.

Reducing Christmas Stress

Considering Christmas might cause stress in two areas: Financial and Time Management – here’s a few tips that might be helpful in getting through this most joyful of occasions.

Make a List
Prepare a list of what you need to do to get ready for Christmas. Divide the list into two columns. Make one column where you list what you need to do to prepare for the holidays (such as gift shopping, wrapping, etc.) and the other column for things you want to do (such as baking and writing a Christmas letter.

Pick and Choose Your Christmas Activities
You can’t do everything! Prioritize your time and take care of what must be done first.
If something is unnecessary, or if it's an activity you really don’t wish to do, drop it!

Get an Early Start
In our family we officially begin the Christmas season on Thanksgiving night. That means we put out a few outdoor Christmas lights and decorations late November and officially “turn them on” after our Thanksgiving celebration is over.
Don’t feel you need to cram all Christmas activities into a few days before the 25th. Stretching out your holiday activities over a longer period of time can really help reduce stress and it gives you longer to sit back and really enjoy the season.

Get Help
Don’t be a martyr. There are no rules that say you must do everything yourself.
Buy Christmas goodies and Christmas pies instead of doing all the baking yourself unless you love doing that. Have presents gift wrapped at the store instead of struggling with the chore yourself.
Spread the Christmas joy by spreading the chores. Delegate!

Limit Spending
Since money is one of the greatest stressors during Christmas, honestly limit what you spend during the holidays. Here’s some tips to help with that.

  • Set a reasonable budget you know you can stick with
  • Make one financial decision at a time
  • Make a list and SHOP the list
  • Avoid temptation
  • Manage impulse buying

Manage Christmas Expectation

Have realistic goals when it comes to the holidays so you won’t be disappointed when the days don’t turn out as perfect as you had wished.
Help children to have realistic goals about Christmas and to have reasonable expectations for Christmas gifts.
Help children to understand that Christmas is about being together – not about the presents under the tree.
And don’t forget yourself. Take time to enjoy the holidays, focusing on things you want to do rather than things you have to do for others. Read a book, watch a Christmas movie, take a ride through the neighborhood to look at the Christmas lights.

Avoid Overindulging
Sure, Christmas is a time for excesses, but be aware of what you’re eating and drinking, and don’t make decisions you’re certain to regret once the holidays are over.
Excessive stress raises the appetite and cravings, especially for “comfort” foods that are usually sugary and loaded with fat.
Enjoy your seasonal treats, but try to control portion sizes and amounts. And don’t forget to exercise. It’s a great way to reduce your stress and handle those extra calories the Christmas goodies may have put into your system.

Research has shown that physical activity reorganizes the brain in such a way it reduces its response to stress.
Go for a walk, and take family members with you. It’ll burn those extra calories you’re certain to pile on, and it’ll be good for the heart, the back, the hips and the brain.

Tom Sims
My Boy Zeke
Source: Tom Sims

Got a dog? Take your companion animal for a walk you'll both enjoy.

Get your rest
Nothing saps you like a poor night's sleep.
Remember, Christmas is a journey; not a destination. Get plenty of sleep to keep your mood and energy levels boosted.

Have Some Fun
Get out and have some fun. Laugh. Allow yourself time and freedom to enjoy the season.
Whether it’s decorating the tree, wrapping gifts, baking Christmas cookies or chomping them down, for a few moments every day forget the items on your ‘to-do list’ and just have some fun.
Having fun will help you relax and will stimulate your body to produce relaxation inducing hormones. It's biology. It's true!

Say “Thanks”
Remember Christmas joy and happiness comes not from gifts, food, drink, or decorations. It comes from relationships.

Take a moment to be grateful for what you have and make close relationships your top priority for the Christmas season.

How we saved our Christmas in the Arctic -

Thomas J. Sims, author
"On Call in the Arctic"
Source: Thomas J. Sims, author

My wife and I will never forget the Christmas we spent in Nome, Alaska when friends became family because none of us had family in the Arctic with whom to share the holidays.

In my book “On Call in the Arctic” I have a chapter dedicated to that first Alaskan Christmas, how we traveled by snowmobile high in the mountains outside the Eskimo village of Elim to cut a 'Christmas bush' to substitute for a tree, and how a case of intestinal flu sidetracked the plans we had for our son's first Christmas. The chapter is one of my favorites in the book, and one that brings a smile to my face every time I read it.

If you’d like to read more about our Arctic Christmas and all the adventures of adaptation and survival we experienced in Alaska, pick up a copy of book "On Call in the Arctic: A Doctor's Pursuit of Life, Love and Miracles in the Alaskan Frontier" and enjoy the read. It’s available everywhere books are sold.

Here's wishing you a glorious holiday season whatever your faith and the happiest of New Years!