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Beat the Holiday Blues

Not feeling too jolly this time of year? Here's how to do away with common stressors and boost your spirit.

By Martica Heaner

Why the Holidays Can Be So Stressful

It's the most wonderful time of the year—or so they say. Why then do 61% of people report feeling anxious (often or sometimes) between Thanksgiving and January 1st? "The holidays are a time when women are expected to shine, and expectations are high," says Pauline Wallin, Ph.D., author of Taming Your Inner Brat: A Guide for Transforming Self-Defeating Behavior (Beyond Words Publishing) and a clinical psychologist in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Combine the pressure to make the perfect pie and have the best decorations with jam-packed schedules, money woes, and family clashes, and it's no wonder that peace and goodwill can be hard to come by. Fortunately, we've got the advice that will help you find more joy—and stress less—this year.

Seasonal Strain #1: An Overscheduled Calendar

Does the holiday hustle and bustle give you a headache? You're not alone. In a recent survey, 43% of parents with children at home reported feeling overwhelmed by how much they have to do in November and December.

Making a to-do list is an obvious first step, and deciding what goes on it is key. Leave off events that you usually feel obliged to attend even though you don't have the time or desire. Instead of agonizing over how you're going to fit the occasion in, what you're going to wear, and what you're going to bring, simply say no.

"A common fear is that people will be shattered if you don't show up," says Ronald Nathan, Ph.D., creator of the self-help CD Relieving Your Holiday Stress and Achieving Your New Year's Resolutions. "In reality, it's not catastrophic if you miss something." Your get-off-the-hook response? "I'm so happy you invited me and I'd love to come, but I have other plans." And those plans can be another event, a family night decorating the tree, or relaxing at home. You don't have to give details. If you must show up, make it a quick stop with a predetermined exit strategy. Inform the host that you can't stay long. For neighborhood or school gatherings, split the duties with your spouse (you handle the class party while he takes the kids to the holiday pageant).

Seasonal Strain #2: Money Matters

If there were ever a year for Americans to tighten their belts, it's this one. Credit card debt, inflation, mortgage worries, and still-high gas prices will force people to cut back more than ever on spending, says Suze Orman, CNBC financial guru and author of Women & Money (Spiegel & Grau). "Agree with family and friends that this year you are going to share the gifts of love and time," suggests Orman. "The good news is that since most people are feeling the pinch, others should understand." Focus on family rituals, or create some new ones. Pick up an Elf or A Christmas Carol DVD and invite over some close friends (with whom you typically exchange gifts) for a movie night with popcorn and hot chocolate instead. If you don't already celebrate all eight days of Hanukkah or the 12 days of Christmas, start now by finding a way to give rather than get. Have your children do a closet cleanout one evening and then donate the toys and clothing to charity. Call your local hospital and find out how you and your kids can visit the sick. Contact an animal shelter and see if you can help walk the dogs.

Don't be afraid to shake up status quo gift-giving practices; homemade cookies or copies of a special photograph mean more than a pricey knickknack. If your kids typically give you a list of what they want, tell them to keep it to five items under a certain dollar value. That way they won't expect a high-priced item and you'll be able to give them presents they want while putting a cap on how much you spend. Instead of giving gifts to all the nieces, nephews, and grandkids, suggest picking a name from a hat so that each family member only buys one extra-nice gift for one relative.

When money woes mean that flying the entire family home to see the grandparents is outside the budget, consider creative alternatives: Is there a halfway meeting point? Or try to schedule a visit for early January instead of peak travel time to save hundreds of dollars in airfare and hotel fees—and ease the stress for everyone.

Seasonal Strain #3: An Expanding Waistline

The average American gains a pound each December. Over the years, those measly pounds add up. People who are already overweight or obese are especially at risk and may tack on as many as five pounds during the festive months. Those who've recently lost weight are also vulnerable.

The National Weight Loss Registry, which contains data on 4,000 people who've lost at least 77 pounds, reveals that successful long-term losers practice rigorous weight-control behaviors over the holidays. Their techniques can be useful to anyone wanting to avoid extra padding: Always eat breakfast. Stick to a regular exercise routine. Weigh yourself frequently to help catch any pounds creeping on. At holiday parties (and even at home) cut out or cut back on the cocktails—every drink not only gives you an extra 100 to 200 calories, it also lowers your inhibitions, making it far too easy to eat more than you planned.

Experts have additional suggestions: Eat a pre-party snack with a high water and fiber content such as fruits, vegetables, and beans. "This will ensure that you're not ravenous for the higher-calorie foods you'll encounter at the buffet table," says Judith S. Beck, Ph.D., clinical associate professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

At parties, try not to linger by the food. Use a small plate (research shows that the bigger the dish, the more you eat). If second helpings are luring you or the dessert table is calling your name, retreat to the restroom and pull out a "stop-me-now" message that you've hidden in your purse. Write something you know will motivate you such as, "The momentary pleasure I'll get from a treat won't make up for the disappointment I'll feel when I can't button my favorite pants."

Seasonal Strain #4: Feeling Down

"Some people are unable to embrace the joy that they think everyone else is feeling this time of year," says Phil Johnson, EdD, an adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York City who specializes in mind-body health. An empty nest, a recent divorce, illness, or thoughts about a lost loved one can put a damper on the holiday high.

Begin by putting a finger on what's got you down. A recent study of loneliness found that sufferers experience either social or emotional emptiness. Married women sustained the most social isolation—despite having a husband and kids, they felt like they lacked a wider circle of friends to give them a sense of belonging. Divorced and single women reported being emotionally lonely. Although they had plenty of friends, they yearned for a more intimate connection.

Once you accept and understand why you're feeling blue, respond to unhappy thoughts by focusing on being grateful, advises Johnson. "Make a list of all the good things in your life and carry it around. Pull it out when you're feeling low," he says. Remind yourself of activities that lift your spirits and commit to spending at least 10 minutes a day indulging yourself, no matter how busy you may be. And find ways to help others who are less fortunate than you to quickly flip a negative attitude into a positive one. Consider volunteering at a homeless shelter or for Meals on Wheels, which can be hurting for staff around the holidays.

And while waves of moodiness are natural, if your feelings of depression persist for more than three or four days and affect your daily life (you can't get out of bed, you feel hopeless, or are unable to eat or sleep), your condition may be clinical. Consult your regular doctor or a mental health professional, or contact the American Psychological Association (locator.apa.org) or the American Psychiatric Association (psych.org). If you have thoughts about harming yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Seasonal Strain #5: Family Dramas

Nine out of 10 people experience some negative emotions when home for the holidays. "No family gets along all the time—and most of us have a Scrooge-like uncle or critical aunt who adds friction to the warmth of get-togethers," says Nathan. "When a relative lashes out it is often due to their inner turmoil." Visiting a childhood home or being around certain people can bring back painful memories. A long-past falling-out or some perceived slight may never have been resolved.

"Plan ahead and mentally rehearse a positive response to predictable confrontations," advises Johnson. For instance, if you're dropping your kids off to see your ex and suspect that he'll make a snide comment, decide that you won't bite back. Brush it off by saying you have to run, and as sincerely as possible, wish all a happy holiday.

In situations where you're caught in the cross fire of a heated discussion at the dinner table, detach and become an observer rather than a participant. If you have no choice but to intervene, invite the upset family member to the kitchen or out for a walk and then ask what's up. Allowing people to unload can ease the tension.

When you're the angry one, avoid letting yourself simmer. "Practice deep, slow belly-breathing that emanates from your diaphragm for three to five minutes," says Nathan. This will help lower your blood pressure and calm you down. Then distract yourself by getting the kids involved in a board game or by switching gears and putting on a holiday movie for everyone to enjoy.

Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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