The Holiday Season Can Increase Feelings of Isolation and Cultural Stress

“‘Tis the season,” as they say.  For some, it is the season of celebration and strengths, but for others, the holidays can represent heightened experiences of cultural stress.

In 2015, a controversy about Starbucks’ holiday cups reflected

the cultural tension evident in a season that can be perceived as Christian-centric.  Starbucks routinely changes its coffee cup design each November.  In 2015, the company decided to remove “traditional holiday symbols” in favor of what it called a “more inclusive” blank canvas of red. Protests began immediately, claiming overzealous political correctness along with a general trend toward what people saw as watering down a favored holiday to please people who were offended by the celebration of Christmas.

We live in a multicultural society, but many Americans identify as Christian and Christmas is built into the nation’s fabric.  Christmas Day is a national holiday, and symbols of Christmas appear early and outnumber symbols of other religious and cultural holidays.

For those who celebrate, or simply enjoy the holiday, there is much to love. Brightly colored light displays; Salvation Army Santas stationed on every corner, ringing bells; hot apple cider; gifts under the tree; the scents of pine, peppermint, and cinnamon. It’s a time to give to others who need; a time to reflect on one’s faith. As a country founded on religious freedom, Christians have the right to celebrate their holiday and those who do not celebrate can choose to appreciate the cultural difference or to opt out.

For those whose culture or religion precludes them from celebrating Christmas, and for those who choose, for other reasons, not to engage in the holiday celebrations, the holiday season can exacerbate feelings of isolation rooted in the dominant culture’s symbolism.

To non-Christians and those who choose not to celebrate, Christmas Day is just another day. Closed businesses are an inconvenience; Christmas greetings may be experienced as alienating or insensitive. The holiday season may result in individuals who do not identify with the dominant Christian culture feeling like an outsider.  Inadvertently, the holidays highlight the presence of discrimination and bias, and can increase the experience of cultural stress.

CULTURAL STRESS – This item identifies circumstances in which the youth and family’s cultural identity is met with hostility or other problems within their environment due to differences in attitudes, behavior, or beliefs of others (this includes cultural differences that are causing stress between the youth and their family). Racism, negativity toward sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (SOGIE) and other forms of discrimination would be rated here.
Ratings & Descriptions
0 No current need; no need for action or intervention.
No evidence of stress between the youth’s cultural identity and current living situation.
1 Identified need requires monitoring, watchful waiting, or preventive activities.
Some mild or occasional stress resulting from friction between the youth’s cultural identity and current living situation.
2 Action or intervention is required to ensure that the identified need is addressed; need is interfering with functioning.
Youth is experiencing cultural stress that is causing problems of functioning in at least one life domain.  Youth needs support to learn how to manage culture stress.
3 Problems are dangerous or disabling; requires immediate and/or intensive action.
Youth is experiencing a high level of cultural stress that is making functioning in any life domain difficult under the present circumstances.  Youth needs immediate plan to reduce culture stress.

The presence of stress related to one’s cultural or religious identity has been linked to mental and physical health effects, including changes in sleep and eating habits, difficulties focusing, and heightened symptoms of anxiety. Researchers have also begun to discover the links between cultural stressors and heightened stress hormone levels, which can have a direct impact on an individual’s heart health or the prenatal environment.

Given this potential for stress for those who feel somehow disconnected from the celebration of the Christmas holiday, might we all set a goal of being mindful of our communication and assumptions during this time?

One thought on “The Holiday Season Can Increase Feelings of Isolation and Cultural Stress

  1. This is such a nice concrete example of how information for the cultural stress item can be accessed. So often in places i work, it is common to see very low cultural stress scores in programs, because we are not taking the time to unearth the way cultural issues are impacting behavior and functioning. Just paying attention to seasons and what they mean to our consumers can reveal the barriers that cultural weight puts on people, and give us a clearer sense of what we need to address in recovery plans.


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