Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Advent: Season of Unreasonable Stress?
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
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?
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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?
There are things in life that you have
absolutely no control oversuch as a teacher's assignment
or exam scheduleand 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!
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
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.
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?
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
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.