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Strategies on avoiding stress during the Catholic season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. Teens are urged to take inventory, focus on the meaning of Advent, make a plan and put things in perspective. "

Youth Update

Each issue carries an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited


 

Advent: Season of Unreasonable Stress?

by Susan Hines-Brigger

Name five things that are stressing you out right now. I'm confident you can answer faster than I can write this sentence. Maybe it's school, your parents, friends, work—or even the upcoming holidays.

According to some reports, stress has become somewhat of a national epidemic. It's affecting people's health, moods and performances at work and school.

In the ideal world, these four weeks leading up to Christmas—better known as Advent—would be a peaceful, prayerful, stress-free time: the perfect antidote to stress, right?

Not necessarily.

While the message of the Church during Advent is one of reflection and slowing down, these four weeks are also crammed full of things like papers due, exams, after-school activities, shopping and family obligations. The thought of slowing down and focusing on the meaning of this season probably seems impossible. But it's not.

I sat down with three teens—Matt, Emily and Caitlin—to discuss stress and ways that the upcoming Christmas season can either add to or relieve that stress. What we came up with was the following four-week Youth Update plan for getting the most out of Advent and doing it with as little stress as possible.

Is it possible to completely eliminate stress from your life? Of course not. That wouldn't even be desirable! A certain amount of stress keeps us on our toes and functioning at our best. The important thing is to make sure that stress doesn't get the best of you. Here's how.

Week One

Take Inventory

These days, it seems difficult to avoid being stressed out about something, especially after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Since then we've been overwhelmed by threats of more attacks, the war in Iraq, a poor economy—parents laid off sometimes—and a wide range of other stressors.

The bottom line: We all know stress in our lives. That stress can either help us be more productive or wear us down.

Stress is your body's natural way of responding to a particular challenge. When you are stressed, your heart beats faster, you breathe harder, your palms may sweat. Those are just some symptoms triggered by what is known as your body's "stress response." You may have also heard it referred to as "fight or flight."

Not every situation that triggers this response is negative. Sometimes your reaction to a stressful situation can actually help prepare your body to react in the best possible way.

For instance, you may have a big game coming up. The stress of the situation may actually help you perform better because it will tell your body to function at its maximum ability.

Stress becomes a problem, however, when you have too much of it or you don't deal with it properly. When that happens, your immune system becomes weak and you're more likely to get sick and feel overwhelmed. You may also have difficulty sleeping.

Sometimes the thought of escaping the stress in your life through the use of drugs or alcohol may seem appealing. Neither of those unhealthy outlets will do anything long-term to help relieve the stress in your life. In fact, they may create even more stress.

Stress can also overwhelm people to the point that they don't feel that they can deal with their stress anymore. In these situations, it is important to ask for and get help.

One thing to remember is that you can't always control everything that causes you stress. For instance, you may have to study for exams over your holiday break. Odds are, you aren't going to convince your teachers to cancel exams, so you don't have much control over that stress.

Instead of fretting and worrying about those things, focus on the things you can do something about. If someone asks you to volunteer to do something or work an extra shift at your job, you can control that. If you feel that you can't handle the extra responsibility, tell the person you can't commit to anything more.

This week, take note of everything that's causing you stress. Determine which of those things you have some control over, such as your own schedule, and which ones are out of your hands. Make a list of the things you can control. Now you're ready for Week Two.

Week Two

Focus on the Season's Meaning

Contrary to popular belief and the endless ads on TV, radio and in the paper, the Christmas season is about more than just buying gifts. The whole purpose of Advent is to take some time to stop and reflect on the importance of the Christmas mystery: the promise of Christ's coming, the Incarnation, the gift of Christ to the world.

Think about the important things that have happened in your life. They could range from a tough test to a big date.

What did you do before those events? I'll bet you spent some time in preparation. Whether you were studying, picking out just the right outfit, memorizing your lines for the school play or practicing for a game, I doubt that you just jumped headfirst into the event without giving it any thought.

If you did, the situation was probably even more stressful for you than it had to be. That's one reason Advent is so important. It offers you the time to stop worrying about everything that's stressing you out and think about something helpful—the upcoming celebration of Christ's birth and what that means to you. That kind of "time out" can go a long way in helping reduce your stress levels.

In fact, all three of the teens I talked with said the Church has a lot to offer in terms of countering stress during the Advent season. Caitlin and Matt recalled how their church youth group made luminarias (bags containing lighted candles, derived from Mexican Christmas traditions) during Advent. For a small donation, people could honor others by placing their names on a luminaria with the phrase, "This light shines for __."

Emily's school service club held clothing drives and also collected Christmas gifts for teens at an inner-city shelter.

These activities, the teens said, helped them focus less on themselves and their stresses and more on others who may need more or are facing greater hardships.

Caitlin added that she finds going to church to be a stress reliever because, "It's an hour of the week where you don't have to worry about anything except God and what's going on in church."

Take advantage of the opportunity Advent offers you to stop and forget about what's stressing you. Spend some time in church or in prayer or take part in an activity that helps others in greater need than yourself.

Week Three

Make a Plan

You're probably thinking, "That sounds good, but in reality I still have exams coming up, I'm working, I haven't done any of my Christmas shopping yet and I have a bunch of family functions to attend."

The best way to deal with a big problem is to break it down into small, more manageable segments. Take Matt, for example.

A self-proclaimed procrastinator, he says that he knows one way he can reduce stress is to start things a little earlier. Leaving them to the last minute, he says, causes him a great deal of stress.

For Matt, perhaps this week could include a look at everything he has to get done before Christmas. Matt could pick out one of those things and get started on it this week.

Emily's plan for countering stress is a little different, but for her it is just as effective. She says that one of the most relaxing things she does during the holiday season is Christmas shopping. She says she finds it relaxing because she and her family develop a sophisticated game plan for shopping the day after Thanksgiving. It's a stress-reliever for her, she says, because it's a time when she doesn't have to think about anything else. It also helps that they have a plan in place to help them make the most of their time.

One thing her story reminded me of, though, is that everyone's way of countering stress is different. For myself, the thought of shopping the day after Thanksgiving with its long lines and hordes of shoppers sounds extremely stressful. But for her, being with family and the thrill of the bargain hunt was a great way to escape her everyday worries.

You know yourself best. It's up to you to come up with some concrete ways to relieve stress in your life that best meet your needs.

This week, come up with a game plan featuring concrete steps for reducing stress. For instance, if you have a big test coming up, plan to spend one hour studying each night.

Week Four

Put Things in Perspective

March was the month that my son, Alex, was due. He decided, however, that he would rather have a February birthday. Was I ready for him? No. Did it matter? Not at all. Despite the fact that I didn't have the nursery set up or all the clothes washed, I was blessed with a beautiful baby boy.

That event puts Advent into perspective for me. It reminded me that no matter how much you worry about everything going on or all that you have to do, Christmas is still going to come on December 25. You are still blessed by Christ's birth—whether you have all your shopping done or not.

Matt says he thinks looking at things from a different perspective is a good way to counter stress. For instance, he says, think about the fact that all the things that may be stressing you out now were probably also stressing you out last year, and you survived them.

Caitlin says she thinks it's important during Advent to focus on what really matters, such as family and friends. "If you can't buy a gift for someone, spend some time with that person instead," she says.

Stop and think about the big picture. If you don't have the time to get gifts for everyone on your list or you don't get to bake cookies, will it actually ruin the entire season?

Will My Holidays Be Stress-free?

Now you're ready to follow this plan and be stress-free this holiday season, right? Let's be realistic. Chances are that things will not always go as planned and you will encounter some stress that you hadn't expected or planned for.

When you're faced with those situations, work to find ways to deal with the stress as best as you can: Stop and pray, meditate, watch a movie, read a book or exercise. Remember, having some stress in your life is O.K., but too much stress is bad. Whether or not your shopping's done, Christmas and all the spiritual gifts it brings will still arrive. And you can be ready.

 
Stress-Busters on the Web

www.teachhealth.com/#stressscale
Check your stress levels at the Stress Scale for Youth.

http://stress.jrn.columbia.edu/site/index.html
Take this stress quiz at The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism's Web site.

http://familydoctor.org/healthfacts/167/
Check out the The American Academy of Family Physicians' page on "How to Cope Better with Life's Challenges."

http://www.nmha.org/infoctr/factsheets/41.cfm
This site posts a stress fact sheet from the National Mental Health Association.

http://www.kidshealth.org/teen/your_mind/emotions/stress.html
Take a look at stress and its effects on teens.

 

Q.

You say that we're supposed to relax and enjoy the Advent season, but how can we when teachers pile on the work right before we leave for break?

A.

There are things in life that you have absolutely no control over—such as a teacher's assignment or exam schedule—and other things you can control. You need to focus on those things you can do something about. If you have a ton of schoolwork to get done over your holiday break, divide it up and do it in small chunks of time. If you weave that time in with fun events, such as spending time with your friends, it probably won't seem like such a huge amount of work. But if you put off the work until the night before break is over, you will probably spend a good amount of your time off worrying about everything you have to get done. That will definitely stress you out!

Q.

Four weeks seems like such a short time to prepare for something that is supposed to be such a big event like Christmas. Why isn't the Advent/Christmas season longer?

A.

It actually is. For a lot of people, Christmas celebrations end the evening of December 25, after the gifts are unwrapped and the parties are done. But according to the Church, the Christmas season is not officially over until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The feast celebrates the arrival of the Magi bringing gifts to the Christ child. That gives you almost two extra weeks to celebrate Christmas.

Q.

The suggestions you've made sound good, but do I have to wait four weeks to start dealing with my stress? Aren't there things I can do right now?

A.

Sure there are! Reducing stress in your life is a process and takes a while. But while you are figuring out how to de-stress yourself, you can try some of the following activities: Pray/meditate, read, go for a walk/exercise, listen to music, take a nap, eat healthy snacks, watch a favorite movie, talk to a friend. The important thing is to find something that you find relaxing and give yourself a "time out."

Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor and family columnist with St. Anthony Messenger, a national Catholic family magazine, and a mother of two. She has also written Youth Updates on friendship, tattoos and body piercings as well as STDs.

Emily Donaworth (17), Caitlin Hohe (16) and Matt Eckberg (17) met at Anderson-Union Community Television Studios for a videotaped discussion with the author on stress. Patrick Lesher, associate director of youth ministry for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Marci Peebles, youth minister at Bellarmine Chapel in Cincinnati, and Joseph Shadle, pastoral associate at St. John Fisher in Newtown, Ohio, produced, directed and filmed the discussion.

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