Amid the din of espresso machines and the crowds perusing tables brimming with handmade wares, Angel O'Brien sat quietly, a small cup of hot chocolate in hand. While much of the crowd at Nampa's Flying M Coffeegarage was searching for the perfect unique gift, O'Brien had no designs on shopping.
With the news that her job had just been cut to part-time, O'Brien was facing a new reality.
"I'm just thinking about survival, let alone figuring out Christmas," she said, a good-natured smile playing across her face.
But "survival" isn't supposed to be the benchmark for holiday success. The holidays are supposed to be a happy, joyous time filled with family, friends and frivolity--look at all those pop culture images of sweater-clad families gathered around the fire singing carols. But for many of us, those idealized images aren't cutting it, and our celebrations are more likely to be reminiscent of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation than It's a Wonderful Life.
Unrealistic expectations of the "perfect" holiday are what drive most of us to do things that we either shouldn't or normally wouldn't do. They are also the impetus for the true costs of the holidays--be they financial, emotional or physical.
Even in good times, the holidays--and everything that comes with them--can add up to a whole lot of stress, but these days, tight budgets, extended unemployment and an overall doom-and-gloom outlook can seem overwhelming.
While the loss of income heaped on top of the normal holiday trials might send many people into a stress spiral, O'Brien takes it all in stride.
"I should be stressed more, but I'm not," she said. "I love the holidays."
Keeping a good attitude despite the stress and pressures of life is sage advice for those who find the holidays more taxing than magical.
In the Wallet
For many, the most ominous cause of holiday stress comes when trying to figure out how to pay for all that cheer. From the social pressure to buy fantastic gifts for everyone you know, to the desire to make holiday celebrations bigger and better, Christmas often comes with a hefty price tag.
According to the Conference Board Christmas Spending Survey, the average American will spend roughly $384 on the holidays this year, up slightly from 2009. However, those of us living out West spend less on average than those living in other regions of the country: New England tops the list, where residents spend $473. Comparatively, the Mountain region spends an average of $404, with the Pacific region coming in at $343.
While that amount may be well above what you actually spend, the pressure to buy gifts can drive many to outspend their limits. Of course, those limits have drastically changed in the last few years. As the economy tanked, many Americans' habit of living on credit came back to bite them. And while recent consumer confidence indexes have shown an improvement, many have had to make some serious changes in their financial mentality.
"To state the obvious, although we might have reached the bottom of the recession, we're still in the recession," said Don Holley, visiting professor of economics at Boise State. "We're nowhere near where we were before."
Lavish spending on gifts just isn't an option for many, especially those who are unemployed. Nationally, unemployment is hovering around 10 percent, while in Idaho, the rate is roughly 9 percent. But what makes those already sobering numbers even more so is the fact that more than half of the people in that category have been out of work for more than six months. That prolonged duration of unemployment is the worst since the 1940s when records were first kept, according to Holley.
"People are unsure about their jobs and insecure in terms of their income," he added.
On top of employment shakiness, household net worth has plummeted. Between 2007 and 2009, American households lost more than $14 trillion in wealth, largely from the daunting combo of the burst of the housing bubble and the decline of the stock market.
National estimates for holiday spending projected that consumers would spend more than in 2009, and early numbers seemed to support that, although the ultimate tally won't be seen until 2011.
But Holley looks at those numbers with a grain of frugal salt and a reminder that those estimates are in comparison to a year that was a dramatic decrease from previous years.
"These are some very uncertain economic times," he said. "[Businesses] can't expect to have a record-breaking year.
"We'll spend like we spent before when our jobs and incomes are secure and our wealth is back to where it was growing at a comfortable rate."
That change in income has brought with it a whole new realization of the weight of unsecured debt, and more people aren't willing to overextend themselves like they did in the past.
Holley pointed to the fact that between 2006 and 2007, the savings rate was roughly 0 percent, and many people were using the value of their home and the stock market as savings accounts. Now national savings rates have increased to roughly 5.5 percent, a jump that Holley calls huge.
"People are assuming less debt and spending less," he said.
So what's the answer for not getting yourself into too much financial trouble when trying to make it through the holidays? How about not spending more than you can afford? Revolutionary? Not really.
Experts from across the board have been weighing in on just how best to tackle holiday spending without getting sacked by the bills. One piece of advice nearly all of them offer is to make a list of exactly who is on the gift list and how much you're going to spend on each one, and then stick to it. Additionally, try to spread your buying across the year. Or simply take the importance off gifts.
"Give more and spend less," said O'Brien of her approach to holiday gift-giving. Rather than focusing on buying material things, her family will continue its tradition of volunteering around the holidays.
"It helps put [things] in perspective," she said.
In the Heart
Of course, the need to spend may not come only from the need to buy things.
The emotional weight of the holidays can't be underestimated. For some, it's one giant guilt fest, while for others the pressure to make this holiday season as great as the last can be daunting. Even more frequently, when friends and family gather, it can mean the reawakening of what we thought were buried feelings.
Daniel Timberlake, psychologist and director of counseling services at Boise State admits that the holidays are the subject of much discussion and research in psychiatric circles. Much of the recent work centers on the idea of how people create associations through early attachments and relationships.
Basically the theories boil down to the idea that the earliest attachments we make are some of the strongest, and they train our brain to associate a certain person or situation with a specific emotion. That could explain why, when we gather with family even as usually rational adults, we find ourselves acting like children.
"Early important relationships and the nature of attachment sets up neural associations in our brain that we take with us forever," Timberlake said. "[It's] some pretty insightful research based in brain science that explains how we react to these people who are supposed to be the most important people in the world--the more important they are, the more associations they can create.
"We're not as logical as we like to think," he said. "Look at your family environment and you'll see the roots of the relationships ... Our most powerful and early triggers are our family members. We go back there and they have the ability to trigger those old emotions."
Timberlake said many things can trigger those memories: a look, an eye roll, family politics.
"When you're a child, and you store the feelings associated [with childhood], people can feel a little more childlike as an adult. It's upsetting and disconcerting. Those are the pieces we don't like," he said.
Of course those associations don't have to be negative, they can be reminders of security, safety, warmth, joy and love.
"That's why we keep going back," Timberlake said.
So, how do you make it through the holidays without reenacting one of your great sibling battles or yelling at your mother that it's your life and you'll date whomever you want?
Recognizing your emotional reaction and realizing what triggers it is a start. From there, Timberlake said, you can start taking the power out of those early associations and accepting people for who they are.
"The goal of perfection is a mistake," he said, adding that no relationship is going to be without its negative points. But if you have five good reactions for every not-so-pleasant one, you're doing pretty good.
"We learn to accept people, and that's what true love is," Timberlake said. "They're not perfect, and we can tolerate the 20 percent of the time when they really piss us off."
Also, give others a little leeway.
"It's not about me and my expectations," he said. "Have realistic expectations. Your family probably hasn't changed since the last time you saw them."
The key, he said, is finding balance. Be connected, but not codependent, be an individual but stay open to others.
"Don't let others dictate how you're going to react," Timberlake said. "Ask before you react, it's a powerful skill."
In the Body
The manifestations of stress aren't just in how we interact with our family and friends. Stress can have a very real impact on your physical health. Add that to the myriad of not-so-healthy things we all do during the holidays, and it can lead to some larger concerns.
Family practitioner (and occasional BW contributor) Dr. Waj Nasser is used to hearing the holiday excuse: people eating too much, drinking too much, not exercising and using the holidays as the ultimate get-out-of responsibility card. But he's quick to point out that even if you only do it during the holidays, that adds up to roughly one-sixth of your life.
"People take a vacation from taking care of themselves," he said. "Don't wait until after the holidays. Take care during the whole year."
Ignoring what we all know we should (or shouldn't) do can aggravate existing problems, including hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, migraines and back pain. And stress can make all of those things worse.
When the holiday demands start stacking up, it's sometimes hard to prioritize, but that's exactly what those being pulled in every direction need to do. It's an approach that has helped keep Boise resident Erika Knipe ahead of the stress curve.
During a lull while manning her booth at the Flying M craft sale, Knipe described how she balances making handmade crafts with the demands of the holidays. Her greatest tool: the almighty checklist. Knipe sets mini-deadlines for herself starting just after summer so things don't get pushed to the last minute. Knipe admits that there is a lot of pressure to create the perfect holiday, but she has her own survival strategy: keep it simple.
Simplicity and staying organized are valid approaches to dealing with stress, and ones largely recommended across the board. Boise personal training business Your Fitness Your Life even offered a class earlier in the season to help the stress-ridden masses turn the holidays joyous once again.
While class participants came from a variety of backgrounds, owner Marilyn McAllister said common causes for stress emerged early on. Mainly, people said they want a peaceful, family oriented holiday, but the pressure to maintain traditional activities, attend/give parties and keep up with work can get overwhelming.
McAllister and trainer Cortney Taul recommend learning one important word: "No." Being able to prioritize and putting aside the rest can help people find balance.
"Pick what's important to you," McAllister said.
Regardless of how it is dealt with, experts agree that too much stress hurts across the board. According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the common symptoms of emotional stress include anxiety, restlessness, irritability, depression, anger, feeling insecure, lack of focus and forgetfulness.
"None of us are at our best when we're under too much stress," Timberlake said. "When people don't feel like they have that much control over their environment, it erodes their ability and the quality of how they experience life."
O'Brien has seen the effects of stress first-hand in her job as an addictions counselor. As she approaches the holidays, she's trying to follow some of the same advice she gives to her clients: keep a positive attitude.
"What's the point in worrying?" she said.
Worrying, overscheduling and being pulled in a million different directions not only cause stress but make it easy to get run down, which in turn can lead to a mild depression. Nasser said that many of the most common complaints--tiredness, fatigue, muscle pain, upset stomachs--are often symptoms of a far from exotic cause: patients are in a holiday funk.
But rather than turning to the Prozac, Nasser has a much simpler and less expensive cure: Try some physical activity. Whether it's getting outside or going to they gym, getting your heart rate up can go a long way toward improving overall health.
"You're not allowing your body to jerk you around," he said. "You take control back."
Nasser also cautioned not to rely on either caffeine or alcohol, both of which offer only temporary relief and have major drawbacks.
"It's easy to say, but not easy to do," Nasser said. "People have to advocate for themselves."
Of course, taking care of yourself during the holidays doesn't mean you still can't have a little fun.
"Splurge a little, but not to excess," he said. "You've got to live."