Managing the stress of Passover

This article first appeared in the April, 2014 issue of Arizona Jewish Life

By: Dvora Entin, LCSW

And so it begins. That huge tray of hamantaschen in Costco reminds us of the impending holiday filled with candy, costumes and celebration. But the mere notion of a triangle cookie tends to send many a Jewish woman into a full-blown retreat, running through the stages of grief, starting with denial. Because it’s not the holiday of Purim we think of, but the immediate reminder of what comes next. Purim means that Pesach is just around the corner.

We begin to count the number of Sundays left and pray for the continued health of our cleaning help (and his or her family). After that the battle cries of women around the world can be heard through open windows: “Do not even think of eating that out of the kitchen! PESACH IS COMING!”

While the holiday of Pesach brings with it special memories as well as dishes, it also tends to lend itself to an increased level of stress in the Jewish home and family. Stress can be a powerful motivator when reacting to sudden danger or trying to meet a deadline, but stress can also rob us of good health in mind, body and spirit. While stress is the body’s normal physical reaction that occurs when you feel threatened or overwhelmed when dealing with an unusually large number of responsibilities, it is important to assess how you can decrease and manage stress for increased performance. When all we see are the inner walls of our closets, or the cabinets of our kitchen, it’s hard to remember to care for ourselves.

Sometimes, normal stress responses are magnified and develop into something more than normal. For some, stress can transition into anxiety. A person experiencing anxiety has excessive and uncontrollable worry about everyday things, and while Passover preparation is hardly an “everyday” experience, the concern for anxiety during a high-stress time is increased. Common symptoms of anxiety are racing thoughts, excessive worry that keeps you up at night, irritability, difficulty concentrating or your mind going blank. Perhaps you have a decreased appetite or find yourself eating your way through the Purim candy late at night.

During this time of increased stress, pay attention to what your body is telling you! Thinking about and planning ways to decrease the levels of anxiety and stress will translate into a healthier Passover message for your children. So much of the Pesach story is the message and lessons we are transferring to our children and the next generation at the seder and during the entire week. Consider what message your children will receive from your actions and perspective of the holiday. Our children hear the language we use to describe the upcoming holiday; if our “oys” and “kvetches” are louder than our celebration and appreciation of the holiday, then that is what our children will remember. Finding ways to reduce the tension can increase the joyful anticipation for you and your family!

How do we move from being stressed to being successful in managing our responsibilities? Begin with realistic expectations of what you are intending to accomplish in your home. Let’s get practical!

• Do you need to invite guests to every meal? Alternate the meals between quiet ones and those with invited guests. Some meals are lovely served on paper plates with plastic ware!

• Do the hard things first, but in phases. By staggering the layers of responsibility, you can better manage the larger projects. Set up tables and chairs as early as is practical. Using Bubbe’s silverware? Polish it now.

• Understand your need for sleep and be realistic about how long you can go with a reduced amount.

• Create a written schedule of your cleaning and cooking needs and check off what you have accomplished.

• Rally the troops! Children and spouses should be included in the preparation and delegation of responsibilities. Ask for and use every available resource of support.

• And finally, plan a break or reward for hours worked to read, listen to music or treat yourself to Starbucks!

A word of caution for the Jewish woman facing the responsibility of Pesach cleaning: In a more observant household this holiday has a significant level of strictness that can heighten anxiety of all involved in preparation. Pay attention to the line between being “strict” and being “obsessive.” If you find yourself cleaning areas you have already cleaned, questioning whether you did it right or need to redo it, finding yourself ruminating about whether your standards are high enough, seek rabbinic guidance and professional support – especially if you have a tendency toward obsessive/compulsive personality or behavior.

The celebration of Pesach is one that, while stressful, can and should be a time of joy, creating new memories and cherishing old traditions. Set yourself up for success by creating a preemptive strike against the stress.

And when all else fails in your stress-busting arsenal, there’s always chocolate!