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Feature Story


It’s time to rethink the reason for the season.

by Liss Mariano, M.D.


Filipinos place great importance on Christmas—but while preparing for the festivities, we can fall into the trap of exhausting ourselves and making Christmas something to dread, instead of something to welcome.

The question is, where does holiday stress come from?

An attitude problem

The central factor to consider is the over-commercialization of Christmas. Devotees are obsessed with shopping to find the perfect gifts, dressing up for parties, and decorating rooms worthy of an interior decorating magazine. While this may provide them with a perfect holiday home, this also takes away the joys of decorating one’s home with personal touches and handmade work. It also leads to excessive spending, another major source of holiday stress.

Over-commercialization leads to heavier financial burdens during the holiday season. In our desire to give all our family, friends, and even simple acquaintances the perfect presents, we often end up desperate to buy anything they might want. This need to please everyone eventually leads to thicker credit card bills, vanishing Christmas bonuses and thinner wallets.

Another reason for spiking stress levels during the holidays are unrealistic expectations. We all used to have our own perceptions of what the ideal Christmas is, but media and society have altered those. Despite vows to have a simple Christmas with the family, some of us succumb to the holiday frenzy and give in to the pressure of going to holiday parties, bringing expensive presents—and again, commercializing the entire holiday season. Ultimately, we end up failing to fulfill our expectations, which leaves us with a sense of exhaustion, frustration and sadness.

Watch those cortisol levels

At this point, you might be thinking, “It’s only stress. I can take it.” However, another thing you need to consider is the negative impact of stress on your health.

Increased stress during the holidays can affect health directly and indirectly. Directly, research has documented the long-lasting effects of stress exposure on human physiology and brain function, including mood, inflammation levels and metabolic risk. To put it simply, stress increases the likelihood of you becoming physically and mentally ill. An array of negative effects, from headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems and diabetes, to asthma, arthritis, depression and infections, have all been found to be linked with stress.

Indirectly, stress causes trouble when we use unhealthy coping mechanisms, including overeating, smoking and drinking, to deal with it. The catch is that Christmas also leads us to make wrong decisions about our health, due to the vast variety of unhealthy choices laid out before us during parties. When faced with good food and free-flowing drinks, we let ourselves fall to the trap of thinking, “It’s okay, it’s only during this time,” conveniently forgetting that in our country, the holidays usually last for more than a month. And due to the sheer exhaustion that preparing for the holidays gives us, we also lapse on our exercise regimens with the excuse that it’s okay to indulge ourselves.

Holiday heart syndrome

If you think that physicians are making too much of holiday stress, think again. A striking example of the negative effects of holiday stress on the body is holiday heart syndrome. Since the 1970s, physicians have noted an increase in hospital admissions for irregular heartbeats after the holidays. Eventually, they were able to pin it down to recent heavy alcohol ingestion or binge-drinking, which resulted in conduction delays and depressed cardiac performance. Despite its cheery name, holiday heart syndrome is nothing to ho-ho-ho about—it can be fatal.

A psychiatric version of holiday heart syndrome is known as SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, which is a type of depression affecting people during the latter part of the year. While it’s common in areas with less sunlight during the winter, it can also be triggered by spending most of the day indoors—as we often do when the sun sets earlier. It’s a very real form of depression that can again lead to fatal outcomes or suicide when left unaddressed.

Challenge commercialism during Christmas

How then do we deal with this without turning into Scrooges? It may be difficult, but the best solution is to reorient your frame of mind. Step on the brakes for a minute. Relax, then set aside a time to reflect on what Christmas truly means for you.

For concrete steps to de-pressurizing your holidays, read the rest of this article in the holiday issue of HealthToday magazine, available at bookstores and newsstands.

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