Holidays can be lovely time full of joy, connection and reflection, but more often than not, that potential gets buried under feelings of stress, overwhelm and even dread. But why? Where do these feeling arise from as we navigate through the purportedly “happiest time of the year,” and is there anything we can do to avoid the compensatory behaviors we often find ourselves in (think: over-eating, over-drinking, under-exercising) in an attempt to cope?
Yes, and, let me explain.
In a culture of consumerism, the messages we’re given centralize around the theme, “You need this.” While there are incomprehensible ways to accomplish this, the basic premise of economics is: Sell people things they need in order to collect money you need in order to buy things you need… and the cycle continues. But before I go on further, let me just say that I don’t necessarily see anything fundamentally wrong with this picture. I have needs. You have needs. We have to find ways to meet those needs. Nothing wrong with that. So, for those of you out there rolling your eyes, thinking I’m shaming the world for consuming and trying to sway you into a counter-culture of communing and trading, I’m not. Let’s be clear.
I am, however, going to suggest to you that your needs, and what marketing companies tell you are you *needs, are two, very different things, and that believing your needs are never fully met is stressful to the body and mind, which is particularly present during the holiday season leads to unavoidable holiday gloom.
In other words, the constant highlight of the fact that we don’t have enough and will never be enough unless we buy, get or have ‘The Thing’ being sold to us, creates feelings of scarcity and lack. And furthermore, while actual scarcity has been shown in studies to be associated with decline in cognitive function as well as feelings of tenseness, irritability, fatigue and overwhelm, mere thoughts about scarcity lead to the same outcome. Meaning: Whether you don’t have enough, or whether you BELIEVE you don’t have enough, the results are much the same.
And to that point, no amount of breathing exercises, yoga, meditation or anti-inflammatory foods will be able to combat the stress you feel if your central belief is “I’m not enough. I don’t have enough.” Those two thoughts, which have an evolutionary basis in needs of safety, are not only stressful but destabilizing as well. Yet, we are inundated on a daily basis with messaging and marketing made to make us feel just that: Not enough.
Turn on the TV and you will see endless advertisements directed at pointing out your flaws, what’s wrong with the world or how you can “fix” your life with this one simple tool. Cue the late night infomercials. But, it’s not always quite as boisterous as that either. A subtle message about those pesky grey hairs may seem totally normal to you based on the culture we’ve grown accustom to, but essentially the storyline is the same old song on repeat: You’re not enough the way you are – here, fix it with this.
No wonder we are all walking around tense, needy and irritable. I don’t know about you, but when I start to feel less-than or not-enough, I immediately want to dig into a box of cookies, a bottle of wine or, better yet, snap at the nearest person next to me just for existing.
In fact, when we feel fearful, stressed or uneasy about our lives, we tend to want to anesthetize that pain with creature comforts such as sugar, alcohol, sex, shopping or exercise. While in moderation, none of these things are inherently harmful, but excessive amounts of them can lead to negative consequences down the road, as most of us are aware. When we spend a whole month (or three considering they put out Christmas decorations at Halloween now) in the feeling of stress around upcoming holidays, we can easily begin to lean on these crutches more often than not, creating detrimental effects for our health.
To demonstrate this point even further, there has been some amazing work coming out of Princeton and Harvard professors Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan pointing to the fact that scarcity, and the feelings of scarcity, actually lower cognitive abilities. Meaning, as humans, our decision making skills sort of fly out the window when dealing with the stress of scarcity. Now, they were mostly referring to financial scarcity in these studies, but have alluded to the fact in other articles that it doesn’t necessarily matter what the subject matter is. The reason being that when the human brain experiences stress, glucose levels plummet as energy demands increase in response to stress hormones being released into the bloodstream, and our attention focuses myopically on the stressor at hand, ultimately, making us dumber and hyper-reflexive in nature.
Now, this might seem like an intense description to lay out as a case against watching TV commercials, but nonetheless I think it’s worth mentioning since we are inundated with these messages more often than most of us care to recognize, making us victims of our own culture.
So, what to do? Because, let’s be honest, thinking about the ways your thoughts stress your body out is stressful in and of itself, and that’s not good for anyone.
Luckily, I believe the antidote to this conundrum is much simpler than we might assume. While I talk about it a lot, awareness – simple, sweet awareness – is once again key. Even reading this post, you will most likely think about things a little bit differently, and that, I believe is enough. Because next time you catch yourself feeling badly that you don’t have the latest style of workout pants or a bigger, fancier car or new furniture for your house or all the books you could ever want to read or the newest kitchen gadget from La Creuset, you might just stop and ask yourself, “Will this thing somehow make me better?” “Do I really need it?” “If I do want it, why? And lastly, “Even without this thing, can I be enough?”
Again, I don’t write this post to scare you out of wanting fun things, shopping for your loved ones or getting caught up in the Christmas spirit. We all celebrate differently, and if that feels good to you, and excites you and conjures feelings of joy – by all means, DO THE THINGS THAT BRING YOU JOY. But, if you find yourself feeling badly, feeling like you're lacking or ungrateful for all that you already do have, perhaps check in and tune in to see if the message is yours, or if you’ve been paying a bit too much attention to those outside voices whose message will always, and forever, be: You’re not enough.
Until next time,