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You can reduce holiday stress by limiting expectations

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By Carolyn Butler
Monday, November 23, 2009; 3:44 PM

The daydreams start about this time every year: I imagine a Thanksgiving feast followed by post-turkey touch football on the beach; my children beside a picture-perfect Christmas tree and glowing menorah, gleeful over their gifts and good fortune; a rollicking New Year's dinner party with friends; and generally lots of togetherness and good cheer. And every year, come Jan. 1, I wake up slightly hung-over, completely exhausted and brooding over all of the family feuds, outstanding debts, tantrums and overeating that inevitably come with the season.

It should come as a surprise to no one that the holidays are one of the most taxing and tense times of the year. In fact, the American Psychological Association found in 2008 that eight out of 10 people anticipated a stressful holiday season, largely due to the tanking economy; an older survey showed that 38 percent of people feel their stress levels rise during the holidays, including nearly half of all women. The biggest causes of all this anxiety? Finances come first, says research from Mental Health America, followed by painful memories, too many activities, overindulgence, being alone and relationships.

"Most people do suffer some adverse holiday emotions, because change is inherently stressful," said psychologist Ronald Nathan, creator of the CD "Relieving Your Holiday Stress and Achieving Your New Year's Resolutions," "and during this time, on top of your regular life, chores and expenses, you're taking care of all the holiday preparations, thinking about trying to recapture the magic of earlier holidays in our lives and possibly facing your shortcomings on New Year's -- not to mention dealing with traffic, crushing crowds, long cashier lines, sold-out toys, tangled strings of broken Christmas lights, dirty houses that are not ready for guests and sometimes divorced or blended families or other issues."

And any one of those things, Nathan said, can trigger stress and the related fight-or-flight response that can create problems sleeping or eating, increase irritability or anxiety and cause headaches and fatigue, among other things. Not exactly a recipe for an enjoyable holiday season!

In the same way that most of us are aware that this time of year is stressful, I'm willing to bet that we already know what to do to attempt to relieve some of the added anxiety: Get plenty of rest, for starters. Eat well. Exercise. Set a budget and stick to it. Simplify entertaining. Travel at off hours. Alleviate present pressure by having a gift grab bag or shopping online. (For what it's worth, my sister-in-law suggested a Secret Santa exchange with a price cap for all the adults in the family this year, something that I then passed on to my side of the family, and I already feel like a huge weight has been lifted.)

It can be tough to follow through on these measures, but setting priorities and taking care of yourself mentally, physically and emotionally will go a long way toward putting more joy and cheer back into the long stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year's, says physician and psychologist Claire Wheeler with the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington. "It definitely helps to take a step back and revamp your attitude, too."

Wheeler, the author of "Ten Simple Solutions to Stress," offers these tips:

-- Manage expectations. Everyone has idealized images of the holiday season, whether they're inspired by the past or the classic movie "It's a Wonderful Life." But we set ourselves and each other up for disappointment by expecting everything to be perfect.

It really helps to sort out your expectations and then adjust them accordingly. Maybe Thanksgiving dinner doesn't have to be a five-course extravaganza that you cook from scratch, for example, and perhaps the kids don't need every single toy on the must-have list this year. We get wrapped up in these daydreams of perfection and forget that, right now especially, everyone is going through a hard time -- financially, emotionally, even because of the winter's darkness. Be realistic about such things as your budget and getting together with family, and work from there.

-- Create your own holiday philosophy. Take a moment, either on your own or with your nuclear family, to think about exactly what you'd like to get out of the holidays this year. Set a theme for the season, whether it's togetherness, giving back or scaling back, and then pledge that no matter what happens -- whether your mother-in-law grumbles about your stuffing or your date cancels on New Year's Eve -- you will stay true to it and not lose focus.

-- Learn from past mistakes. Think back to the past few years and remember all of the times you said, "I'm never going to do that again," whether it's drinking too much at the company holiday party, getting into a knock-down-drag-out fight with Uncle Bob about immigration over turkey, or pulling an all-nighter to put together that Barbie Dream House or train set in time for Christmas morning.

Look deep, be honest and ask yourself which parts of holidays past worked and which didn't, be it in terms of relationships, planning or logistics. Laugh about the transgressions, and then make a conscious decision not to repeat them.

-- Relax. Finally, when all else fails and you just can't take the crowds at the mall or deal with the burnt-dinner disaster anymore, try to breathe properly, counsels Wheeler. She recommends a simple exercise that can be done anytime, anywhere, to help trigger the relaxation response, reducing blood pressure and heart rate and easing your mind so you can think more clearly: Breathe in for four counts through your nose, breathe out for eight counts through your mouth; repeat at least four or five times.

"In the moment when you're feeling very stressed out, everybody always says, 'Oh, just take a deep breath,' " she explains, "but it doesn't really help unless you do it right."

I'm already trying to change the way I look at the holidays, starting with the gift situation and by embracing smaller family get-togethers, fewer parties and more-healthful eating. But I'm also practicing my breathing, just in case.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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