Best Ways to Beat Holiday Stress

Too much food, lots of shopping and family. Here are some tips to survive.

Nov. 28, 2007 Special to — -- Starting this week, many will spend the next month preparing feasts, attending several parties and shopping obsessively for the perfect presents, all while counting blessings and enjoying the company of family and friends.

Millions of Americans will also spend it focused on reducing stress instead of spreading cheer.

From long lines to even longer lists, there are numerous opportunities to become mired in holiday strain, but experts say it can be overcome by tailoring festivities to your liking, as opposed to mimicking the grandiose displays reflected in commercials or movies.

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"I encourage people to not just jump on the bandwagon," says Dr. Beverly Thorn, professor of psychology at the University of Alabama. "We need small doses of expectations or else we're setting ourselves up for failure."

Adopting this philosophy is an empowering start, but to be fully prepared for the holiday season you should be aware of the warning signs of stress, common triggers and effective coping strategies.

Warning Signs

Though Americans struggle to manage stress throughout the year, the holidays can magnify underlying issues and emotions. An American Psychological Association study conducted in 2006 found that while 78% of respondents reported feeling often happy around the holidays, about two-thirds sometimes or often felt stressed and fatigued.

Dr. Edward Creagan, a professor of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine who has studied the effect of stress on the body, says the warning signs of stress can include irritability, fatigue, sleep disorders, indulgent eating, loss of enthusiasm and feelings of detachment and angst. People who feel high levels of stress during the holiday season, he says, often function as if they're "in a robotic fog, thinking, 'I don't want to do this. but there are familial pressures and cultural expectations.' "

Drinking and eating excessively, smoking and being overly critical of family members are common negative-coping strategies that signal difficulty in managing holiday anxiety. Aggie Casey, director of the Cardiac Wellness Program at the Benson-Henry Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, cites these bad habits as well as physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension and an accelerated heart rate as evidence of heightened stress levels.

While it may be easy to identify the warning signs, isolating the source of stress can be trickier.

That's because "stress often doesn't have to do with the event," says Casey, "but with how [people] interpret that situation."

The Triggers

Stressful situations might include a combination of family obligations, work commitments, gift-giving expectations, traveling, shopping and cooking within a six-week window--all which add to a perfect storm of stress and conflict.

While spending often ranks high as a cause of anxiety during the holidays, this season may be particularly difficult for families dealing with the housing crisis and rising gas prices and heating costs. Though Americans are expected to spend $474.5 billion on holiday gifts, a 4% increase from last year, credit card debt and ballooning budgets will surely result, which can have long-term consequences for many families.

Other triggers of holiday-related stress are relationship dynamics and the emotional and physical demands of balancing work and family. Casey says that regardless of the source of stress, one theme is common to most complaints: a sense of powerlessness. This happens frequently when people sense an obligation to attend a family function or work party and feel as if they have no decision-making power. Women often turn to comfort eating during the holidays as a coping strategy, but overeating actually leads to increased feelings of guilt about weight gain and breaking one's diet.

Instead of falling back on counterproductive habits, Casey suggests adopting a new, more positive perspective.

Resolving The Stress

For example, when stuck in holiday traffic with a list of groceries and gifts to buy while worried about a visit from the in-laws, try Casey's de-stressing technique of pulling over, breathing deeply, reflecting on the source of anxiety and choosing a response instead of reacting to the situation. This strategy can be applied in most situations with the following directives: stop, breathe, reflect and chose. According to Casey, it's crucial to rethink or re-frame the problem in order to effectively manage any negative feelings.

This coping mechanism is effective when addressing immediate stress, but experts also recommend advance planning and delegating as ways to prevent stressful situations from ever occurring.

Kate Kelly, co-author of Organize Your Life, Free Yourself From Clutter and Find More Personal Time, suggests that families sit down weeks in advance of a major holiday or celebration and discuss what's most important to each individual and what responsibilities that person is willing to assume. For harried and overworked parents, this can mean delegating cooking or shopping to teenagers or adult children. Another essential task to be done beforehand is creating a realistic budget that won't generate additional stress in the months following December.

"Simplification is vital," says Kelly, who encourages families to host potlucks instead of cooking an entire meal. Or invest in one item for the family instead of buying high-priced items for each person.

"You've got to establish something that's workable," she says. "There's nothing worse than a stressed-out person--that's no gift to anybody."