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Surviving the Holidaze: A seasonal conversation with psychologist Stephen Ross

De-stressing the holidays can be tough to tackle in this "more is better" rat race, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Stephen Ross.
De-stressing the holidays can be tough to tackle in this "more is better" rat race, according to clinical psychologist Dr. Stephen Ross.
Courtesy/Stephen Ross
The bottom line, says Dr. Ross, is turning off all of the noise in your brain.

Feeling holidazed & confused? You’re not alone. A recent study by the American Institute of Stress tells us eight in ten Americans say that expectations and events around the holidays cause them to feel increased stress, with 31.1% admitting their physical and mental health definitely worsens in the last quarter of the year.

With overspending, harried schedules, strained relationships and myriad other stressors at every turn, there’s seemingly nothing short of a Christmas miracle to de-Scrooge the season.

Here WBOI’s Julia Meek discusses how these seasonal pitfalls evolve and multiply with clinical and forensic psychologist Dr. Stephen Ross and what we can do to maximize our holiday cheer.

You can connect with Dr. Ross at his website.
Below is a transcript of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Dr. Stephen Ross, welcome.

Stephen Ross: Hello. Thank you.

Julia Meek: Now those oh, so merry holidays are converging. So very briefly, why do we do what we do?

Stephen Ross: You know, I think we do it for emotional economy. It's easy. We get used to it, maybe there are traits that we've had early scientists, early psychologists thought, behaviorism thought that we do what we do, because that's what we've been trained to do.

 I think it's because it's more comfortable for us. People might be willing to drive, you know, halfway across town to go to a grocery store there, because that's where they've been before versus probably one just down the street, but it's comfortable and it's familiar.

Julia Meek: Comfort, okay.

 Stephen Ross: We like comfort. That's pretty much what we're looking for nowadays in life dependent upon your age, and what you want, what kind of goals you want to fulfill, but it's comfortable, it's easy, it's knowable, we know what we're doing.

Yeah, for yourself isn't that way, that's a good way. We'd like comfort we like less stress as we get older and like a lot more familiarity.

Julia Meek: Okay, we know that this longest, darkest time of the year needs celebrating, we have customers to prove it, many of them are ancient. How much of our 21st century overload is that accelerated pace you're referring to that the whole world keeps by now, Steve?

 Stephen Ross: Because everything is changing at a moment's notice. What people thought was the regular way of life has changed. And that could be good. You know, we got diversity going on in life. I'm convinced.

I think Franz Kafka said this, the best way of surviving and developing mental health in your life is the capacity to deal with change. Franz knew that decades ago and it's right now.

If you can deal with change, adverse or positive change, because even though you win the lottery, you still got some stress coming towards you, but you can deal with change, you're gonna be okay.

Julia Meek: And changes with the whole 20th century was all about so we had slower times going into that century, so to speak. And this is simplifying of course, but then by now, it's life in the fast lane.

Stephen Ross : Yes, it is.

Julia Meek: We're still trying to do all the old things. Is that a huge part of the problem?

Stephen Ross: I think we're getting inundated with the new. Now's the new, what is it, 15 iPhone? That's out. But when I came to Fort Wayne in ‘90, I didn't, there were no cell phones as far as I remember.

And then my wife, you know, thought I needed to be in contact with people, you know, while I'm driving home, talk to patients. And I thought that's probably a big mistake, you know? (both laugh) Now that's all I use.

Julia Meek: Now what you'd expect, but there you are. And there you go. (chuckles)

Stephen Ross: Yes!

Julia Meek: And we have sacred, secular and nature based elements all in play at this time of year. It is a heavy hitting time of year, all rolled into one in our culture. Is this a pitfall rather than a comfort to be blending all of these elements of belief and tradition?

Stephen Ross: Well, I think it is. I mean, I was raised Catholic, born and bred, and actually went to seminary in the 70's. And back then was the best part of my life; when I was in a monastic seminary for years, I wasn't a monk, but there.

I cried when I left that place in 1980. But the point is that it was a benchmark for me when I was that age and it is from a Catholics, sacraments and whatnot, very important. Judaism is very important.

So I think it's okay for people to lean on those. In fact, I would suggest, if you have that in your life, lean on that. At my age, I've come to listen to other people's ways of how they're celebrating their spirit and their soul, and I came across a guy, he's a software engineer, he's Sikh, he and his wife, his wife's a physician.

We talk, I work out together every day, and we work out, he's wearing his turban and that's cool. But he's been teaching me how the Sikh culture embraces beyond just the faith, it goes embracing people, taking care of people.

And I think that's the way to go, you know, as getting away from individualism, per se, which is what we're embedded in, but going to reach out to others as a way of celebrating your faith.

And there is reason for older folks like me, we get caught up in rosaries and whatnot. That's cool. But I think one way to adapt to change in life is wanting to adapt, change our religious perspective, a little bit, being a bit more inclusive.

Julia Meek: A broader focus...

Stephen Ross: A broader focus, and more individuals.

Julia Meek: Enlightened, yeah. That's wonderful advice.

Stephen Ross: It is.

Julia Meek: And everything that you're saying certainly makes sense, Steve. So with a season this physically and mentally exacting, we really need the celebrations. But honestly, how can we holiday proof ourselves?

Stephen Ross: Well, you'd have to take off your ad pops, how you do that, I don't know. (chuckles)

You have to not watch Hallmark Christmas, because every time they got some sort of add on there for something in addition to the show. I'm joking about that.

But it's really you're gonna have to turn off the noise in your head that's been coming your way and you let it come away. Turn off that noise, even when you're working out, and I'm a big fan of working out but sometimes it's hard to turn off the noise it keeps you going.

Julia Meek: Critical. And there's plenty of noise all the time, especially at this time of year. And then the some is good, more is better trap, which obviously moderation is the key. We've got that one. That sounds so sensible and terribly noncommercial. I can have to ask, how do we market it? (chuckles)

Stephen Ross: Well, I'm gonna get a little ageist on people here. I'm 66. And I work out with kids who are in their (kids!) who are in their 20's and they're lifting weights and that, but they're into the latest thing and their language is changing.

They're using words that I never heard of and I have to be schooled by them. But I think it's endemic to being younger to have to get caught up in that because you're missing something.

Kids think they're missing something. If I don't get this, if I don't get that phone, if I don't get whatever, I'm missing out on something.

The older folks, I think we've had that already, I don't want to miss out on time with my family versus having to do the Black Friday shopping, you know?

Julia Meek: Yeah, yes, it makes perfect sense. It's harder...

Stephen Ross: This is all going to be hard to... because like I said, we're used to familiarity, and we want to just keep going the same old way, the same old technique that may not work.

Julia Meek: Well I am curious, Steve, is it even possible to embrace oneself or get other people to embrace a less is more attitude?

Stephen Ross: Well when you have a culture that tells us more is more, I mean, they're telling us now you share more in your retirement savings. That's true, definitely true for most of us.

Julia Meek: But not so you can spend it on Christmas gifts that people don't want or need and go into more debt for?

Stephen Ross: That's what they do. The debt ratio is so high now. I can't believe it, its highest. I read that how impossible it is for a Gen X, Gen Z to get a home.

They may not be reachable up to that point for them. But I think it's we have to let go as we get older in our hopefully, in our sage age.

As we get older, we learned that letting go is the way to live and learning how to de-mystify de-clutter our mental process and our home too. That's hard if you're still living with three kids.

Julia Meek: Of course it is and small houses and small homes and living small is trending right now. But for those where that's two or three or four generations behind them, is it possible to think of that as a positive thing instead of some kind of a negative, a failing, a loss because you're minimalizing.

Stephen Ross: There were two people I've worked with, more than two, in my years, that I said that is the ideal family. And they came to me for different reasons. What were they doing that made them the ideal fam--the one that I would say, "look at them!

And it was the screening out the sources outside of the family, that negative music, news. They were Christian, and they were, they were in their own little enclave so to speak, but they screened out the caustic and the poisonous stuff.

And I don't mean diverse thinking, I'm talking about negativity. But I looked at them and said, that's an example of who I think would be a great family and they turn out to be.

Julia Meek: A textbook "good" example.

Stephen Ross: Yeah. If there was such a textbook, yes.

Julia Meek: As a matter of fact, a word on the current global events, Steve. How do the military conflicts and the ecological upheavals affect us indirectly, even if it's not happening in our backyard or in our country. What should we do? How can we be aware of that?

Stephen Ross: Well, that brings us back to true story back in '63, or maybe a little later, '64, the Bay of Pigs crisis, and I was probably six years old, maybe five years old. I remember, I can't recall the time of the year, but when that became such a big fear that we were going to be attacked, and I was a five year old.

And I see people around me going a little bit crazy, in my little five year old brain. And the anxiety, I started to take on the anxiety, as a five year old. So I was, it was bleeding into me.

I think now what people are probably seeing if their kids, or they have access to it, they're seeing the same thing. Global fear is an Israeli Hamas conflict gonna turn its ugly head towards us? What's going to happen to the economy and whatnot?

I think it is affecting these kids who see their parents worried about their fortunes. Remember when they thought that the gas prices would skyrocket, and then stocks would plummet? That would get people who were into that scared.

So I think it's hereditary anxiety that just comes down from a parent. Cause biological anxiety is nature versus nurture. You've already got that nature component there, what you're going to see around you is going to be more pronounced.

And again, this is immediate access to information that people get, I don't think kids really watch NBC but we do. I mean, we kind of keep track of what's going on out there.

Julia Meek: But they feel it, they absorb it?

Stephen Ross: You bring your stuff home as a parent. As you may know, you bring your stuff home, your kids could see that. It's, "what's the matter?"

Not to mention, there's more substance abuse ever than we have ever had before.

Julia Meek: Without dwelling on the subject of substance abuse, which is pertinent and yet it's its own thing, you are a clinical psychologist, Steve, and also a forensic psychologist, and so you really are firsthand with that.

What can all of this do to really ball things up this time, especially under stress of a time of year like this?

Stephen Ross: Well, fentanyl is being being laced with everything and anything nowadays, and these Safe Kids who think they're getting, you know, whatever, crack or cocaine or just pure pot, they're getting it laced with stuff.

So I think any parent whose kids are out there, sampling drugs, you don't know what you're gonna get, and you may end up with an overdose. We get an overdose every day in this town. So my point is, you don't know what you got when you get it.

And these kids are getting it way earlier than we ever thought they could. And it's getting parents, depending upon where you live, in certain demographic areas, you should be afraid of what your kids are getting.

I get cases now where someone's committed a criminal act under the influence of fentanyl, or cocaine or Ketu spice and their behaviors are immediately changed all at once. They can beat somebody up and maybe not even remember it. My point is that we're chemicalizing ourselves and now it's going down to the middle school age.

Julia Meek: And it's crisis, obviously.

Stephen Ross: Yes it is!

Julia Meek: Again, made more intense and even harder to deal with at a time of year like this?

Stephen Ross: I don't think we're blowing it out of proportion. I mean, some things get blown out of proportion, but I think it's here now. In the climate change, here, now, Now drugs in the family. So here now.

Julia Meek: So looking at the pressures we inflict on ourselves, possibly year round, of overloading, over commitment, busy schedules, dollars and debts we're talking, can we clean house?

Stephen Ross: Oh, that's the thing. Jack Benny had this phrase, "only if you want to." (chuckles) Um...only if you want to, and if you buy into it, and you can see that there's a personal value to it. I, when I bought a new house with my wife several years ago, I had an acre lawn, which I like to be outside.

How will I be able to get that up down the road as I can't mow the acre lawn, but my point is given up stuff that we really, was only given to us, only borrowed by like nature and what...we're only borrowing that stuff, but can you adopt it in your life now?

We're too busy, I think in our everything now, for us to be able to give up a lot of that, but you got to work hard at it, you have to purposely give up.

 Julia Meek: It's an intentional thing?

 Stephen Ross: Yup. You have to give it up purposefully. Not like you want to lose 25 pounds; that could be part of your resolution, I guess for the world, but it's a matter of you see benefit to you, giving up stuff. Giving it away.

 Julia Meek: And let's not overlook strained relationships, recent losses, especially recent losses, the last straws that can kind of blindside us that are always a drag, again happening at this time of year. What can we do going forward to prevent or you know, insulate ourselves from that kind of negative.

Stephen Ross: You made a good point about strained relationships, in that it always rears its ugly head in the holidays like this because you might have to see people you don't really want to see. You might have had some estrangement over some stupid reason, you know, I don't want to see my brother again or whatnot.

And add to that, Julia, you get people who want to drink during the holidays, and they're more open to be expressive of their feelings, which means they just stir up a bunch of garbage for people. There's a thing we have in AA about making amends. The point about it is you making the amends to connect with somebody else and ask for their forgiveness.

So you never make amends with somebody when it's the wrong time to do that, or they're still burnt, tired of you. But I think before our holidays occur if you can make some amends to what people you have in your family, so it doesn't become a flashpoint.

When you're at their grandma's house. That's when you get a lot of your domestic violence calls to during the season.

Julia Meek: Just having your own little defense that's an empowerment all in itself to in a very practical practical thing.

Stephen Ross: I hope so; I think so.

Julia Meek: So short of a Christmas miracle, what things could you suggest that we do, positives, to maximize our own holiday cheer all year, if you will, but especially at this time of year going forward?

Stephen Ross: Give the experience away. Give the experience to somebody versus the Hummel, Hummel, the, uh Hummel toy or whatever it is; give the experience to people.

We're taking our kids tobogganing, to Pokagon, Pokagon State Park. That's what I want, you know. I'm done with buying big things; I'll buy dinner, we'll have dinner; and we're getting our kitchen redone so we can have a post-holiday dinner, but having the experience versus the object.

Julia Meek: Make it an action verb, not a passive? Yeah, that's a beautiful, beautiful suggestion. Beyond that, anything else?

Stephen Ross: Well, if you consider that a great number of people in this country are living just on themselves, and they have no one to connect to? You bring somebody else in for the experience. I don't think that's too hard.

But I think reaching out, we do that, we'd like to reach out to people who may not have somebody. Bring them in, or just have them close by or have tea or coffee. But it's again, the experience versus the toy.

Julia Meek: And if we go all the way back to the ancient customs that go with this long, dark time of year, it's all about extending the time when we can see people and we can do people; it is what it's all about.

That's a really, really great suggestion. Yes. And you have been really great to share your thoughts with us, Steve. Now the last question before I let you go? As the New Year approaches, and the wheels of fortune turn us in to 2024, believing in New Beginnings with or without New Year's resolutions, what's yours, for everyone listening?

Stephen Ross: I would like to have peace in our inner, and how we treat each other. Not the, “let's be on guard kind of type of approach to see how you're going to mess me over hurt me.”

And, I'd like for us to learn how to listen. I see that in people who don't know how to listen. They just don't listen. The person who taught me how to be a listener was a professor at University of Chicago, a woman, she was Rogarian, Carl Rogers, which you study Carl Rogers to be a good listener.

And she taught this to me for two semesters in Chicago in the early 80s and it stuck--how to be a good listener because you might be the best psychologist or whatever in the world or the best researcher. If can't listen you're not gonna go very far.

So I'm hoping to be a better listener to my people, my family this Christmas, a better listener. Best gift.

Julia Meek: Dr. Stephen Ross is a clinical and forensic psychologist here in Fort Wayne. Steve, thank you for taking the time, sharing your wisdom with us; carry it on, have a good holiday.

Stephen Ross: Thank you and you too.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.