Keep stress in check this holiday season

Ways to keep the 'wonderful' in this time of year

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If this is, as one popular holiday song goes, "the most wonderful time of the year" -- why are we so stressed?

Blame the calendar, one expert said.

In little more than one month's time, multiple celebrations are held -- Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas Eve, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

"And that means everything that is stressful for the holidays is multiplied," said Sean DeYoung, director of quality improvement for Familylinks Inc. Mr. DeYoung is a licensed social worker and has nearly two decades of experience as a child and family therapist.

The holidays often mean increased demands on time and money in lives that often are already short on one or the other or both, Mr. DeYoung noted.

De-stress tips
Don't try to do it or buy it all. Make a schedule and make a budget. Stick to both.
Set aside time for yourself.
Set aside time for your immediate family by eating dinner together, reading a book together or playing a game.
Learn to limit your need to be perfect -- try bakery items, instead of homemade ones, for example.
Identify the most stressful aspects of the holiday challenges and try to limit or modify them.
Set realistic expectations.
Put family differences aside and celebrate the holidays.
Practice relaxation exercises.
Acknowledge grief and reach out to loved ones for support.
Learn to say "no."
If things are so overwhelming you feel you can't cope, seek professional counseling.
-- Sean DeYoung, director of quality improvement for Familylinks Inc., and Barbara Harrington, professor and chairwoman of the department of psychology at La Roche College

"You have to go shopping, you have to attend parties, and you have to attend holiday events. You find yourself asking yourself, 'How am I going to fit this in?' -- and/or 'How are we going to pay for all this?' "

Barbara Harrington agreed. She has a doctorate in experimental social psychology and is a professor and chairwoman of the department of psychology at La Roche College.

"Everyone I know has rich and complicated lives. The holiday season doesn't set aside all of these daily or regular commitments, so extra food preparations, shopping and the like are in many respects extra burdens, even if they are positive ones," Ms. Harrington said.

Balancing and fitting the holiday activities into already busy lives means something has to give and that often can mean sleep, which means more stress.

"Some of the immediate consequences of inadequate sleep include more negative mood states and irritability.

These alone may complicate our interpersonal interactions and add to family tensions," Ms. Harrington said. So, adequate sleep is important.

Creating a budget in advance and sticking to it also will reduce stress now and later, Mr. DeYoung said.

"The holidays don't have to mean outlaying more money -- money is a huge stressor for families," he said.

Mr. DeYoung said it is important for people to set aside time for their immediate family.

"It is OK to say no. It's OK to take something off your plate. You can't do it all and you can't please everyone," he said.

"Eat dinner together or play a game. Your kids are going to pick up on your stress and you don't want them getting stressed out," he said.

Holidays also usually mean increased time with extended family, including those who may have strained relationships.

"There are the 'who is hosting what' questions and maybe house guests. And there are those difficult family relationships," Mr. DeYoung said.

Spending more time with extended family members can bring mixed results, Ms. Harrington said. "The holidays bring families together in wonderful ways, and they bring them together in challenging ways," she said.

Existing family dynamics don't change just because it is Thanksgiving or Christmas.

"One's children are always one's children, no matter what age, and spending time with one's parents brings out the hidden child. And old conflicts are like to re-emerge," she said.

An overlooked but important aspect of holiday stress is grief, Mr. DeYoung said.

For families who have lost loved ones, especially recently, celebrating the holiday without that loved one can be extremely difficult.

"That loss can be right there in your face and just be a big stressor. You may be asking yourself, 'Why am I feeling so crappy right now?' and it could be from loss," he said.

Acknowledging and accepting the feelings of grief and loss will help reduce the stress.

"You don't have to put on a brave face. That can cause more damage. Reach out to loved ones who can offer love and support," he said.

And you don't have to do it all, Ms. Harrington said. As the daughter of a mother who created "her own Christmas-time stress" by insisting everything be perfect for the holidays, Ms. Harrington suggested taking advantage of shortcuts to reduce stress, including buying baked goods and using stick-on bows.

One of the greatest stress-reducing measures is a simple one -- taking time for you.

"Set aside time for yourself -- no one does that and if you take just 15 minutes a day to catch your breath, it can make a big difference," Mr. DeYoung suggested.

That 15 minutes can be used to take a short walk, read a book or spend time with a loved one.

The best advice of all? Mr. DeYoung echoed Ms. Harrington: Don't expect everything to be perfect.

"Don't set yourself up with too high of expectations. Set realistic expectations of how the holidays are going to be," Mr. DeYoung said. "It doesn't have to be perfect to be enjoyable."

Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer:

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