According to the 1963 classic Andy Williams Christmas song, we have now entered “The most wonderful time of the year.” Many of us believe and feel this to be true, but many also experience this to be the most stressful time of the year. For some, it’s a fine line between joyous expectation and dread.

Watch out for the ‘shoulds’

Our Buddhist friends, with their mindfulness approach, teach us that suffering is the result of attachment. The goal is to accept and experience things as they are, without judgment, and to let things go when they go, recognizing that all things are impermanent. The more we get attached to beliefs about how we should feel, how others should behave and how events should unfold, the more we become at risk for guilt, frustration and disappointment because these things will not always go the way we want or believe they should go.

Don’t worry, be happy?

The belief that we, or others, should, or shouldn’t, feel a certain way is the source of so many of our mental health troubles. And this contrast, between what people feel and what they’re expected to feel, is probably never greater, in a collective, cultural sense, than at this “most wonderful time of the year.” There is enormous pressure, externally and from within, to be merry and bright, like it or not.

But for some people, the holiday season fills them with other feelings and experiences like sorrow, loss, regret and stress. This combination of increased pressure to be happy while feeling even more stressed and melancholy than usual can cause some to feel alienated and inauthentic and just wish for the season to be over with.

Working overtime

The increased work load that we take on in order to be “ready for the holidays” can be daunting. The shopping, cooking, cleaning, decorating, planning, hosting, visiting and traveling are all amped up and in a relatively condensed period of time. And this occurs as the weather gets colder and snowier, and the hours of daylight are fewer. On a good day, all this hustle and bustle can be fun, exciting and romantic and make for great stories and laughter. But sometimes it’s an awful lot to handle and just not that much fun.

The family experience

It’s hard to get through the holiday season without thinking of family. For some, this is nothing but a positive experience. Some are blessed with wonderful childhood memories of loving family gatherings and currently have families, marriages and relationships that are warm and healthy, loving and nurturing. For others, their family of origin or current family situation is associated with painful feelings. There may be loved ones who have died, tragedies that have occurred and relationships in conflict which can make family memories and family gatherings quite difficult.

Less perfection, more permission

One thing we might try to do this year is to ease up on the perfectionism. Yes, we would love plans to go well and for everybody to have a great time. There’s nothing wrong with trying our best to make it so. Let’s try to add some flexibility and forgiveness into the mix when our humanness falls short of perfection. Secondly, we can also give to ourselves and others the gift of permission to feel what we feel without judging it as good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, rational or irrational. Let there be room for tears of joy as well as tears of sadness. And let there be space to pause and reflect on the true meaning of our special holidays.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of jdurham /


Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.