Keeping the Grinch at Bay: Practical Tips for Handling Holiday Stress

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Paterson, NJ (December 7, 2009) - For most adults, the holidays are a time of stress, no matter how you slice that fruitcake. We rush about, we spend too much, eat too much, drink too much and invest a lot of energy in "having a good time." Many of us will, instead, end up with bills, extra pounds, hangovers and disappointment.

Why are the holidays such a mixed blessing? Often the root of the problem lies in the differences between the expectations we have and the realities we face. We think of "Jingle Bells" and serene Currier and Ives images of idyllic snow scenes. What we get are traffic jams and inches of slushy, icy mess.

According to Lauren D. LaPorta, M.D., Chairman of Psychiatry, St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center, "There are generally four major sources of holiday stress, sometimes referred to as 'The Four F's of Holiday Friction: Finances, Fantasies, Family, and Food' This year, take a moment to reflect on these areas in your life. How do they affect you and what steps can you take to make this holiday a less stressful one?"


One of the biggest stressors of any year is FINANCES, but this year money may be even more of an issue. "Everyone is feeling the squeeze of the economy," noted Dr LaPorta. Spending beyond your means may not ensure a happy holiday but it will guarantee a January in the red. Set a budget and stick to it. When it comes to holiday spending, this is one time it is ok to be a quitter. When you hit your limit, stop! Make a list, check it twice and talk honestly with family, co-workers, and friends about gift exchanging (often, they are in the exact same position, so don't be afraid to bring up the subject). Some people just may not be able to afford it this year, no matter how low you set the limit. Homemade gifts can be more meaningful and offer a chance to showcase hidden talents. Another useful suggestion are offers of services such as baby-sitting, home cooked meals, or help with household tasks. Start early and avoid the last minute rush.


Some smart shoppers stock up on gifts throughout the year. Keep a large plastic container in the basement marked "gifts" and pick up those great bargains when you see them. Remember when you saw that great sweater that was just perfect for your sister? In July? You'll save time, money and stress next season if you think outside the season. And, when it comes to holiday spending, this is one time it is ok to be a quitter. When you hit your limit, stop! Another fun strategy would be holding a "white elephant grab bag" with co-workers.


"This can be a lot of fun," Dr LaPorta says. "Basically, you pick out the one most awful gift you got last year for the holiday, wrap it up nice and bring it in. Then everyone picks a number and the one who goes first gets to pick out one of the gifts. Everyone then goes in order with the option of opening a new gift or claiming something that has already been opened. "It doesn't cost a thing and takes the pressure off office gift exchanges."

If you're a parent, it is OK to tell your child that a certain toy is too expensive (even Santa Claus has limited funds and has to draw the line—the elves, it seems, are not that tech savvy and those fancy gadgets aren't made in the workshop...). "Remember that there is a difference between what we want and what we need,", LaPorta says. Besides, those same "must-have" toys, gadgets and gizmos will still be there after Christmas, usually in abundance and at lower prices, and will still be just as much fun. Think about Santa leaving "gift certificates" this year and taking your kids shopping after Christmas to "redeem" them.


Next, be sure to separate fact from fiction. "Identify your FANTASIES about the holiday," suggests Dr. LaPorta. Base your expectations in reality, not on hype from television, movies and advertisements. You don't need the biggest or the best to have a great holiday. You don't have to accept all those invitations, nor regret that you don't have as many as you think you should. Running yourself ragged, trying to please everyone at the expense of yourself is never a good strategy. And, it's all well and good that grandma baked all of her own cookies and made her turkey stuffing from scratch, but then, did she have your schedule? Was she trying to balance home and work? Sometimes the best way to make the cookies is to "make...( the trip to the store to buy) the cookies!"


Don't beat yourself up if you let the stop at the bakery or skip a few steps and buy the slice and bake or have the store cook it for you. Isn't it really about spending time with your loved ones? Isn't that what those memories are all about? And be sure to set aside time to take a break and catch your breath. Even as little as 15 minutes of "down time", sitting quietly, listening to soothing music, will help clear your mind and restore your calm.

Dr. LaPorta adds, "And speaking of FAMILY, there's the second source of stress. Just because the holidays are upon us does not mean that it is all peace on earth, good will towards all. Family dynamics can be more tangled than that old string of Christmas lights and much harder to unravel. What defines a modern family is far from simple." Divorce, remarriage, loss of loved ones and long-standing feuds often make holiday harmony another fantasy. It may not be possible to simply avoid people who cause us stress, but grievances can perhaps be set a side until a less hectic time for discussion or resolution. Accept others as they are, not as you wish they would be. Non-traditional families may call for non-traditional celebrations. If everyone can't get together physically, there may be more creative ways to share with each other. Picture albums, phone-cards, sharing videos, emails or visits arranged throughout the season rather than just on "the day". Be considerate of the feelings of others, respect differences and realize that conflicts in relationships have often been years in the making and won't resolve in hours or days. If you find yourself alone at the holidays, look for support from friends, church or community sources. Getting involved and helping others is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your social circle.


And then, there's FOOD. By the end of December, just the sight of another plate of cookies is bound to make you woozy (don't you just love co-workers who bring their leftovers into the office—sure, make us ALL eat it instead of just you at home!). Feasting is part of celebrating, there's just no denying it. But those 5 or 10 pounds so easily added in December may be nearly impossible to lose in January. According to Dr. LaPorta, proper planning may help to maintain healthy habits through the holidays. Skipping meals so you can fill up on goodies later in the day is a poor strategy. Set realistic goals. Unless you have special dietary needs, no foods should be "off-limits" but be sensible about portion sizes. Plan on tasting a wide variety of items rather than piling it all on. Choose smaller plates, eat slowly and savor. Eat at a leisurely pace. Limit portions of high-fat foods and try to select lean meats. Enjoy salads with lemon juice or oil and vinegar instead of creamy dressings. Don't forget, alcohol also has calories and often interferes with the way the body burns fat calories. Many people who drink at the holidays don't drink often and may have a lower tolerance for alcohol. It is easy for these individuals to underestimate their level of impairment and may drive when it isn't safe to do so. Drinking and driving NEVER mix. Resist the pressure to drink - just because alcohol is being served, it is not required that you drink it. Alcohol is not a necessary ingredient of holiday cheer and it is not rude or insulting to a host to request a non-alcoholic beverage instead. Similarly, if you are hosting a party, you do not need to feel pressured to serve alcohol and if you do, be sure to have non-alcoholic beverages available and make guests feel comfortable in making their choices. Designate a driver before the party starts and be sure no one leaves your home with the keys if they should not be driving.


"Remember, one key to minimizing holiday stress is simply being aware that the holidays are stressful. Plan for things to not go as planned and take active steps to manage the areas you can," added Dr. LaPorta. "You may find that you will actually enjoy the holidays more this year than you thought you would!"


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