If you didn’t know what was coming Thursday, you’d think the country was bracing for a natural disaster.
TV anchors are urging people to remain calm. Therapists are adding office hours to accommodate the panicky. Doctors are warning diabetics and heart patients about elevated health risks. Motorists are being advised to plan for hurricane-evacuation-level traffic jams. Pet owners have been put on alert.
The threat? Thanksgiving.
In 2017, with a nation divided over President Trump, groping, and, of course, gluten, the narrative around the holiday — #Stressgiving — has become so fear-based that Susan McConathy, a Jamaica Plain mother, says she has to remind herself that it’s a “quote, holiday.”
“There are so many rules,” she said. “You have to modify your recipes to take out the sugar or salt or butter or you will kill someone. You can’t talk about politics or religion or vegans or climate change or the whole family will be torn apart.
“The traffic is going to be so bad that you can’t leave on Tuesday afternoon, or Wednesday evening, or Thursday between 11 and 1.” She took a breath. “It’s no wonder everyone is so stressed.”
After building for decades, the Thanksgiving-hysteria machine has jumped the turkey. Emergency preparedness for the Thankspocalypse has become so intense that it lasts longer than the holiday itself, said Kyle Marie Carney, a therapist in private practice in Cambridge.
Carney, who is Skyping with out-of-town patients who need a holiday booster shot, says people start talking about Thanksgiving anxiety in October, and then spend post-turkey sessions discussing who said what to whom. “The debrief is a big part of the therapy,” she said.
Morra Aarons-Mele, author of “Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Roadmap for Getting Out There,” says the public conversation about stress used to center on whether the turkey was moist, a problem that could be solved by the Butterball hot line, not a shrink.
“Maybe it’s the Oprah effect — it’s good to air our dirty laundry,” she said, adding that social media has turned Thanksgiving, once a private family day, into a performance.
“People are worried that their food won’t measure up [on Instagram or Facebook], or their families won’t, or they won’t,” she said.
In 2017, stress has become such a staple of the Thanksgiving menu that it’s gotten competitive, said Beth Jones, a writer in Brookline. “There’s one-upsmanship. It’s like ‘I have 92 people coming and you only have 36.’ ”
“It makes me sad,” she added. “Thanksgiving should be left alone.”
Fat chance. With anxiety disorders affecting 40 million adults 18 and older in the United States annually, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the Angst-Industrial Complex is not about to miss a business opportunity.
A scroll through Twitter reads like a business school study of dread-based marketing. Fantasy football, cannabis, pet firms, a hypnosis studio, the self-care industry — all are using the holiday.
“Thanksgiving can be a stressful time for many people,” tweeted @ExtractWellness, a hemp-extract products firm. “Hemp oil has been extraordinarily helpful for some people in dealing with that stress.”
@dogster weighed in with “5 Tips for Managing Anxiety at a Multi-Dog Thanksgiving.”
“Does the simple idea of Thanksgiving stress you out?” asked @MindGourmet a self-help website. “Are you dreading all those uncomfortable conversations? May we help you out?”
With the clock ticking down to Thanksmageddon, Sarah Weiler, a research administrator at Harvard Medical School, took Tuesday and Wednesday off to prepare for a gathering of just seven people.
“I’m on defense,” she said, as she enumerated stressors that include, but are not limited to: braving the grocery store and “hoping to score the last vegan pumpkin pie”; buying junk food like Doritos for visiting college students, “which I then eat”; and anticipating what flaws her 83-year-old mother will find with her home, and trying to remedy them.
Weiler bought room-darkening shades for the guest room, installed a towel bar in the guest bath, and Amazoned herself a soft foam pad for the guest bed. “But you can never get ahead of it,” she said, wondering what else will be wrong.
“There’s so much stress you can forget it’s a holiday,” she said. “And my family really likes each other.”
If there’s good news about the panic gripping the nation, it’s that anticipatory anxiety does have one positive effect, said Carney, the Cambridge therapist. “Oftentime my patients tell me that Thanksgiving wasn’t as bad as they expected.”
Well, that’s good, because for many people, Thanksgiving, which involves family and food, but not gifts, is a mere warm-up for the real stress test, which begins Friday: Merry Christmas.Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.