Controlling the Chaos of the Holiday Season

Stress studies show that a sense of control is essential to mental health. Those who survive captivity with the fewest mental scars are those who maintain as much control as possible even when so much is out of their control. They may treat their cell as a home, rearrange the “furniture,” save food and share it with others, write notes to themselves, make plans for their days, order their lives in simple ways. Prisoners who lose their sense of control lose their purpose, their self-respect, and eventually their minds.

Most of us are not prisoners, but all of us, for better or for worse, face the holidays year after year. From mid-November to early January, our lives change, bringing many things that are delightful, but which increase our pressure and fatigue. For many, the holidays seem out of control, the chaos inevitable.

Plan Now, Play Later

Much of both the financial stress and the time crunch can be avoided with planning. Buy Christmas presents in advance (when they’re on sale); plan the dinner now, watch for food sales and buy, prep and freeze it early; say “no” to extra engagements around Christmas; buy next year’s cards the day after Christmas (best sale day of the year) and begin writing them in October (do wait until December to mail them). Nanci and I don’t send Christmas cards, we send Thanksgiving cards. It’s more special then, and we don’t have to add it to December’s responsibilities.

To avoid the Christmas chaos of children opening ten presents in one night, spread out the presents the week before Christmas, letting them open one a day. Or, better yet, simplify by making useful gifts for each other and encouraging grandparents and friends to limit presents to one per person. Gifting to the needy something related to and in honor of your family members’ interests through Samaritan’s Purse, Africa New Life or similar ministries adds an eternal benefit along with the benefits of ease (no wrapping, broken and missing parts or storage issues).

Set aside time to read the Christmas story unrushed.

This is just a beginning. You can make dozens of changes. You cannot eliminate all holiday stress of course, but you can certainly minimize it. And if you don’t, remember, it’s not because you couldn’t but because you didn’t. It’s your choice.

For years I lived under the tyranny of the telephone. I treated the ringing of the phone as a divine mandate, and I missed too many dinners and bedtime prayers with my daughters because of that phone—no, actually because of my choice to answer the phone.

Finally I discovered something that changed my life: phone calls are seldom from Mt. Sinai. There are few true emergencies and it won’t hurt people to wait an hour or a day for me to call. When my daughters were growing up there weren’t cell phones, and one of the best things about going out for the evening as a family was that nobody could reach us! We can do the same thing now—but it requires silencing the phone. You don’t have to see who’s calling, texting, tweeting, Facebooking, or…fill in the blank. In fact, if you do, you’re saying they are more important than the people you are with. As Jim Elliot once said, “Wherever you are, be all there.”

The phone is our servant, not our master. I still get notifications on my phone at all hours. I just don’t necessarily answer them right away! And I live guilt-free, because I know it’s what God wants. Looking back, I’m amazed and embarrassed that until I was thirty I let that piece of technology disrupt me and my family. All because I didn’t take control. Thank you, Lord, for waking me up when you did!

Dealing With Your Own Stressors

Whether Christmas or the telephone are a problem for you, or you worry about losing your job or you’re concerned about a friend who is facing a divorce, list circumstances or situations in your life that trigger a stress response. Put them in one of the following categories: uncontrollable, controllable, and partly controllable.

After you identify the sources of stress and determine which ones you can control—even partially—jot down specifically what you can do about them. Make your plan, schedule the time to do it, then follow through and implement the necessary changes.

While there is much we can’t control, we can always follow God’s formula for dealing with stress by praying. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6, ESV). Sometimes we desperately want to take control when we cannot. But we know and trust the One who is in control and that’s where we rest.

Can You Take Control and Still Trust God?

How do self-control and spirit-control relate to each other? How can we reconcile those passages of Scripture that emphasize waiting on a sovereign God with those that emphasize our responsibility to take action? This is a tension that Paul felt, but clearly he saw God at work through his own efforts: “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which he so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29).

There is a time to work for change, a time to leave change to God, and a time to accept the fact that change will probably not happen. My own rule of thumb is “Don’t play dead, but don’t play God.”

One of the most significant findings in psychology in the past twenty years is that individuals can choose the way they think. This corresponds with Scripture, which tells us we are to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” (Romans 12:2, ceb), and that we should think about things that are good and praiseworthy (see Philippians 4:8).

The Christian life is supernatural but not enchanted. God doesn’t magically make us happy despite the fact that we make work, sports, leisure, or sex into our idols. If we choose to seek happiness elsewhere, God won’t force himself on us. And He certainly won’t give us happiness in what distances us from Him.

Happiness comes naturally in the same sense that fruit comes naturally from a tree. If the tree gets sufficient sunshine and water, if the ground is rich in nutrients, if the tree doesn’t contract diseases, then yes, it “naturally” produces fruit. We must plant ourselves in the rich soil of God’s Word, soak in the living water of God and His people, and bask in the radiant sunlight of His grace. We must take the steps to help and serve others, loving not only God but also our neighbors. Only then, as we change our minds and actions, will newfound happiness come “naturally.”

So, adapt to what you cannot control, control and influence what you can, and leave the rest to Him. And remember—when you do, it will be in infinitely bigger, better, stronger hands than yours.

For more, see Randy's book Help for Women Under Stress.

Photo: Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries