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SHERIDAN — If Christmas is supposed to be a magical time of whimsical wonder, why do so many people feel as though they have a rock in the stomach when they think about the holidays?
It turns out that being surrounded by festive decorations and cheery personas only goes so far to protect against the nag of financial worry and self-imposed pressure to create the “perfect” celebration.
The American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey routinely finds people in more rural areas, like Sheridan, report the second-highest average stress levels in the country. While money is often cited as a leading source for anxiety year-round, finances often take center stage for those predisposed to holiday blues.
Northern Wyoming Mental Health Clinic Psychologist Thomas Schnatterbeck said work and the economy are also leading sources of stress for people in the West.
However, while 65 percent of westerners consider it important to manage stress, only about 35 percent report proficiency with keeping their own stress in check.
Schnatterbeck said people in Wyoming are especially susceptible to tension that results from unattainable holiday expectations.
“There are a lot of times when, because of our economy, people can’t be with their families or can’t be where they want to be,” he said, pointing out that travel is often a job requirement in many sectors of Wyoming industry, and so are long, odd hours. That, coupled with the reality that families don’t always have picture-perfect relationships and coveted holiday presents turn out to be unavailable or unaffordable, add to the concoction of multifaceted holiday stress.
“People end up not spending their time the way they would really want to,” Schnatterbeck said, indicating that instead of being with family, people often find themselves shopping for hours on end or tied up in other accessory busywork.
The APA asserts it’s crucial for an individual to be proactive in managing stressors. Strategic tips to survive the holiday season include:
• Reframe holiday expectations to focus primarily on spending time with loved ones when possible. Ensure celebratory emphasis is on relationships and not material gifts, and communicate that message to children.
• Volunteer, either alone or as a family group. Many nonprofit groups host special events during this time of the year and desperately need helping hands. Helping others not only fills a void within the community, but puts your own stress in perspective when compared to those less fortunate.
• Exercise. While it takes marked determination to venture outdoors in icy temperatures, bundling up to build a snowman, go sledding or just walk around the neighborhood to look at lights can be well worth the effort.
• Set aside personal time. Self awareness is only half the battle of stress management — the other half is doing something to avoid burnout. Carve out time to take a nap, work on a hobby or spend time recharging.
• Seek help and accept it when needed. Talking about problems might not make them go away, but it can relieve the pent up stress caused by the situation. A trusted friend or family member is a good place to start.
People have differing interpretations of the “real” meaning of Christmas. Many celebrate the Christian tradition, others prefer to acknowledge the changing of the seasons and some simply appreciate the time to focus on philanthropic interests. Among the differing significance of the holiday, the sentiment is never intended to be a catalyst for additional worries.