by Don Ingwerson
As the holidays approach, individuals respond to the season in both positive and negative ways. Many worry about overindulging in food and drink, others are painfully reminded of past events, and still others experience increased loneliness. These emotions can result in poor decisions about food consumption and behaviors, so these dangers need to be thought through prior to the season’s activities. However, there is another way of avoiding the pitfalls many experience during the season’s festivities. A well-planned holiday can provide the opportunity for expressing many health-giving attitudes and feelings of emotional completeness that have lasting benefits.
Decades ago, when my wife and I relocated from the Midwest to Southern California – right before the holiday season – we felt very much alone and it appeared that only long distance phone calls to friends would bring us joy and happiness. However, after a Thanksgiving church service, a family of four invited us to share Thanksgiving dinner with them. Upon hearing there would be guests from far away, one of the young girls in the family quietly asked her mother, “Do people from the Midwest speak English?” Today, decades later, that girl is still sending us holiday greetings.
That outreach to share Thanksgiving dinner and that family’s festivities didn’t stop there – it was a model for our family over the many holiday seasons that followed. And since then our home has consistently been open to share family activities without hesitation.
I’ve found that sharing the warmth of my family’s festivities with others gives spiritual depth to the holidays. In an article written by the Mayo Clinic staff, “Stress and depression and the holidays: Tips for coping,” the Mayo staff suggested that stress and depression can ruin your holidays and hurt your health. The clinic staff offered many tips and some of the leading ones were: acknowledge your feelings, reach out, be realistic, set aside differences, stick to your budget, and plan ahead. Each of these tips includes at least two important elements – physical and spiritual.
In considering the spirituality aspect, associate editor Therese Borchard discusses how spirituality and prayer relieve stress. She quotes Dr. Roberta Lee, who states, “Research shows that people who are more religious or spiritual use their spirituality to cope with life. They heal faster from illness, and they experience increased benefits to their health and well-being.”
Harold Koenig, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine and Psychology at Duke University, who reviewed more than 1,000 studies that appraised the effects of prayer on health and then recorded these findings in his book, Handbook of Religion and Health, comments, “Faith attaches meaning to events. It gives folks hope, the ultimate stress reducer. Hope, doctors say, is about the best thing you can do for your body. It’s better than a placebo.”
Physical aspects also need to be addressed. Although much of the news and conversation about the holiday season seems to be about food, dieting, weight gain, calories, and exercise, some researchers are critical of existing nutrition studies. John Ioannidis, a respected meta-researcher at the Stanford School of Medicine suggests a simple approach: ignore them all. That’s good advice when worrying about overconsumption that causes holiday stress.
Even though we celebrate Jesus’ birth on Christmas, what he said later in life is a good guide to a healthier holiday. (Matt. 6:31) He told us not to worry about food and drink. He even advised his followers to eat whatever was served to them.
The lesson I take from Jesus and others is to nourish the mental diet, to feed the soul, so to speak. As spiritual aspects instead of physical concerns become our focus during the holiday season, these aspects become the real health-givers. Spiritual qualities, like affection, joy, patience, and self-control actually produce better health for the individual, resulting in a sense of purpose, less stress, more harmony, and peace.
Article originally published December 24, 2012 and first published in Blogcritics.