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De-Stress Your December

If your stack of unfinished holiday cards and the never-ending lines at the mall are leaving you frazzled, you aren't alone. A new study shows that more than 80% of Americans feel anxious at this time of year. Our gift to you: coping strategies for common yuletide triggers.
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Holiday Hazard: Overbooking Yourself

Serenity Solution: When the season has you adding party planner, personal shopper, design star and pastry chef to your job description, you're bound to start feeling crunched. "It really is okay to say no to invites and requests," says Sheela Raja, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago. "Agreeing to another commitment just because you'd feel guilty turning it down is just asking for more stress." Create calm instead by respectfully and firmly declining: "I have too many family obligations to be able to run this year's bake sale, but I hope to help out in the spring." Most people will understand—and a few may even want to borrow your tactics.

Holiday Hazard: Maxing Out the Plastic

Serenity Solution: The average American spends about $700 annually on gifts, not to mention travel, food and IMAX tickets to the new Mission: Impossible movie. Before you start seeing your credit card balance creep up—and worry about the debt that could follow you for months to come—examine your finances and set a realistic budget. (For help, go to familycircle.com/holidaybudget.)

Holiday Hazard: Succumbing to Family Drama

Serenity Solution: It's not uncommon for relatives to clash over the same topics year in and year out, so try to have a few calm comebacks and conversation changers ready ahead of time. (Grandma doesn't like your son's long hair? Remind her of the mop-top your brother sported in the '70s.) "All families have misunderstandings, and they tend to build up when you're spending so much time together," says Raja. Above all, accept your family members for who they are—nobody is perfect, and chances are, they're feeling strained too.

Holiday Hazard: Indulging in Too Many Goodies

Serenity Solution: Dieting is a year-round struggle for many women, but with holiday favorites in abundance all month long, the number on the scale is bound to bring on added anxiety. "We also tend to eat more when we're feeling stressed, so it's a vicious cycle," says Raja. Have a light, healthy snack before a party (like veggies with hummus or kale chips) so you don't show up starving. And make a deal with yourself: "Yes, I'll have a cookie, but I'll stop after one." If you slip up, forgive yourself and move on.

Q. I fall into a funk every winter—tired, unmotivated, moody. Why?
A.
Gray skies and the constant need to scrape frost from your windshield are enough to bring anyone down. But if you struggle to find joy in the things that normally make you happy, you may be suffering from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that usually occurs during the colder months. Some doctors believe that reduced sunlight may cause a drop in serotonin, the brain chemical that makes you feel happy. Try making a few lifestyle changes: let more light into your home, get outside for at least a few minutes each morning and exercise daily. If you're still feeling down, visit your doctor to discuss other treatment options.

Say Cheers
When you toast the season with a glass of wine, bottle of beer or cocktail, you may be giving yourself the gift of better health. Research shows that with any type of alcohol, moderate drinkers (that's one serving a day for women and two for men) have higher levels of heart-healthy HDL cholesterol. What's more, a new Harvard University study found that a daily drink reduces the odds you'll develop diabetes or mental illness. Just take care not to go overboard—otherwise, the benefits quickly disappear.

Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.