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'Tis the Season to De-Stress

Holidays can bring jangled nerves or jingle bells, experts say

MONDAY, Dec. 20, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Waiting in line at another department store for last-minute gifts, hung over from last night's office party and dreading the impending arrival of the in-laws, it hits you: Where did all the fun of the holidays go?

For far too many Americans, the season is anything but that, as to-do lists grow and stress levels rise to record highs.

But experts say it doesn't have to be that way.

"We get to thinking 'Hey, this is the holidays, it's supposed to be joyous, and I'm supposed to be joy-filled, so what's wrong with me?' That's stressful all by itself," said Dr. Gail Saltz, a professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.

According to Saltz, the key to enjoying the holidays -- especially for women -- is to begin with expecting just a little less.

"Lower your expectations to what's reasonable," she said. "That's tough, especially for women, because that's traditionally part of their role as wife or mother -- to make the holidays be 'nice.' "

Saltz believes everyone needs to pause and think about what's really important about the holiday season.

"Is it really about whether or not you made the most difficult cake, or 50 different kinds of cookies? Or is it more about just being together as a family," she said. "See if you can make that your priority -- enjoying each other as much as you can."

A healthy change in yuletide attitude won't make Christmas shopping, office parties, and less-than-perfect family gatherings go away, of course.

But Dr. James Maddux, a professor of psychology at George Mason University, has some practical suggestions for lightening the load:

  • Make list, check twice: "Part of what's stressful is that feeling of being overwhelmed -- there's so much to do in such a short time," Maddux said. He advises writing a list of what needs to get done, based on tasks completed last season. "Look at how those tasks were managed last year, and figure out how they might be better managed this time round."
  • Be a little less giving: No, this doesn't mean bringing out your inner Scrooge, but rather coming up with creative ways to shorten out-of-control gift lists. "One of the things my family did years ago was, among the adult children, agree to stop buying gifts for each other -- now, we just buy gifts for each other's children," Maddux said. Other families might agree to limit adult gift giving by drawing names. "You'd be surprised how many family members will say 'Oh yeah, we thought about doing something like that for years.' "
  • Surf like Santa: Both experts agreed the Internet is a perfect place for convenient, low-stress shopping. "You can do it anytime, and the gifts come to you," Maddux said.
  • Party less heartily: Office parties, eggnog at the neighbor's -- invitations abound during the holiday season. For those on tight schedules, Maddux suggests giving less-important gatherings a pass this year. "Remember, you have an obligation to respond to every party invitation, but you don't have an obligation to always say 'yes.'" If you do party down, remember to ease up on drinking and overeating, since both can contribute to guilt and stress.
  • Grin and bear it: Though everyone would love to think their families are perfect, "every family has their 'stuff,' " Saltz said. And sometimes, family gatherings can be both unavoidable and stressful. "In those situations, just remind yourself that 'It's only for a few hours, once a year,' " Maddux said. "Try avoiding people you don't get along with, or at least avoid topics you know are going to set them off."

Of course, for some -- especially the sick, elderly or those far from home -- the holiday season can bring loneliness and depression.

"Every time there's a holiday, they feel they should be with family, or the holiday brings about powerful memories of being with family in the past," Saltz said.

She believes individuals who see another lonely holiday season looming shouldn't feel shy about calling loved ones beforehand.

"Most people, if they get a call from somebody saying 'Hey, I'm going to be alone,' would bend over backwards and say 'Of course, come spend the day with us,' " Saltz said. "They usually feel good about it, knowing that you wanted to be included in their holiday."

But she said the holidays are also a time for families to remember those in nursing homes and other isolating circumstances, to reach out and make the season a little special.

In the end, Saltz said, warm, human contact is really the best gift of the season.

"People rarely think about what they want from the holidays," she said. "But there are those special little things we say to each other, that communication. That's an amazing addition to the holidays, and it doesn't cost a thing."

More information

Stress can lead to depression -- to learn about the warning signs of depression, go to the National Institute of Mental Health.

SOURCES: Gail Saltz, M.D., associate professor, psychiatry, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York City; James Maddux, Ph.D., professor and director, clinical training, department of psychology, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.
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