Festive season stress: nothing beats reaching out, opening up

Festive stress in the South African context has been attributed to several challenges, as expressed by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, including excessive spending, often leading to financial stress, says the writer. Picture: Armand Hough/Independent Newspapers

Festive stress in the South African context has been attributed to several challenges, as expressed by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, including excessive spending, often leading to financial stress, says the writer. Picture: Armand Hough/Independent Newspapers

Published Dec 15, 2023


Willie Chinyamurindi

The festive season is not always one to be jolly. For some people, the season that accompanies merrymaking is one of the most difficult times to navigate through. The festive season comes at a time when we take stock of the difficult year that has gone by. Painful accountability for some, accompanied by what has been called festive stress and its ensuing trauma.

Yet for others, the break from routine is very much welcomed. A moment where we are disengaged intentionally. Yet even in the moments that we are supposed to be relaxed, the experience of festive stress follows.

The thought of trying to navigate through busy shopping malls is enough to drive one crazy. Then there is having to reunite with relatives over a two-week period, uninterrupted. The family dramas, including those unresolved tiffs, some lasting generations.

One of the holiday seasons that should bring us all together is one of the most profoundly damaging to our humanity and lived experience.

The phenomen on of festive stress can also be linked to our social connectedness. The stress that comes with the festive season could just be a reminder of how porous our levels of connectedness are. Perhaps we are not that cohesive unit we thought we were. For some, the memory of pain from the previous holiday season invades and takes over the holiday narrative. A colleague of mine struggles with this time of year, a stark reminder of the pain each year of losing their parents to Covid a few years ago.

A recent poll by the American Psychological Association (APA) shows the cause of festive stress is inherent in the socio-cultural milieu. For instance, the pressure to spend yet not having money is likely to lead to festive stress. The indulgence can continue in December, yet looming over the horizon are the cares of January.

The same APA poll magnifies the stress that comes during the festive season for those who lack connectedness. In our context, this could be the experience of migrant workers who for some reason cannot go home.

Within the South African context, festive stress has been attributed to several challenges, as expressed by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. These include excessive spending, often leading to financial stress.

Sadly, for some, the holiday season can lead to self-harm and even suicide.

To some, the stress of the festive season is manifest through social pressure to account for the progress of the past year. Often those demanding the accounting may be insignificant, yet the pressure is mounting and very real. Given this, others just prefer to withdraw from the public during the festive season.

It is a season of paradox, with stark contrasts. It is a season for joyful reflection of the events of the past year yet also heightened anxiety when thinking of the year ahead. It is a season of appreciation of the gains of the ended year, yet also a season where the losses from the year remind us of our below par performance. It is a season where we spend so much money at one go, yet austerity looms on the horizon.

For some, it is a season where we give so much and yet receive so little.

A season of pomp and pride as evident in the bright lights, yet darkness also pervades the soul for some. The type of darkness that brings discomfort, uncertainty, and melancholy.

Yet the festive season is an excellent opportunity to get that much-needed rest and recuperation. The festive season represents a moment of cessation from the routines of the year and an adoption of the casual and laid-back.

We all need that momentary rest, a rejuvenation before starting a new year. Ongoing international research places the importance of sleep and self-care, especially during the holiday season, as crucial. From our own research, a period of breaking from routine and self-care has been shown to be related to the promotion of physical and mental health.

So, how have we come to have such mixed feelings and responses to the festive season?

In the last year at the University of Fort Hare, I have had the privilege of working with local and international collaborators to understand aspects related to the future of work. Our findings tell a story of mixed fortune, especially around what work means to two groups of people: the employed and the unemployed.

To the former, being employed and having an income allows not just for aspirational attainments but also positive well-being. To the latter, being unemployed is undesirable but, at best, debilitating to the esteem.

In essence, both the unemployed and employed can suffer from tremendous mental and physical health strain. This is even true in how these two groups of people respond, given their status, to the holiday season.

Is there really a survival guide to the ominous dark cloud that often accompanies the festive season?

At best, what we can offer are points of reminder, a holding of the mirror to what we can do to make it through this festive season peacefully.

A starting point is to acknowledge our humanity as being one of an oscillation between success and failure. Let us begin by appreciating and taking into account that all of us have had a tough year. Yet, during obstinate challenges, others have managed to overcome them.

Praising such moments of success during the festive season becomes a crucial affirmation. Picking through and honouring the best moments from the year can also be helpful as fodder for encouragement looking into the year ahead.

Yet opportunity also exists as part of this humanity to be honest where we may have fallen short. This could be due to reasons of our own or a series of happenings not of our own doing.

Such negative experience requires a modest appeal and even moderation of the language we use towards others and even ourselves. This entails speaking about rather than magnifying the challenges from the past year.

Nothing beats reaching out and talking about how one is feeling, especially in view of the challenges that come with festive stress.

We can be better in the year ahead; let’s get some rest and recharge!

* Chinyamurindi is a professor at the University of Fort Hare and member of the Society for Industrial and Organisational Psychology of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

Cape Times