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Holiday stress season

Dec 16, 2013 - By Steven R. Peck

Even a joyous time of year can be stressful for many of people

"It's the most wonderful time of the year."

So goes the Christmas song.

For many people, that's true. The traditional holiday season is one of contentment, satisfaction, of pleasure in the company of others, of family togetherness, pleasant anticipation, comforting memorial and material reward.

But not for everyone. For significant numbers of people, the holiday season can be a time of loneliness, unwanted attention, a reminder of unhappy memories, a time of social and financial pressure, of anxiety based on unrealistic idealism, and falling short of expectations.

If the song that describes your season is less like "Joy to the World" and more like "Blue Christmas," here is advice from the Mayo Clinic to help pass the season tolerably:

- Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you has recently died or you can't be with loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sadness and grief. It's OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can't force yourself to be happy just because it's the holiday season.

- Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.

- Be realistic. The holidays don't have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can't come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, e-mails or videos.

- Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all of your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression too.

- Stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don't try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts that a month later you realize you couldn't afford.

- Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That will help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients or panic over gifts. And make sure to line up help for party prep and cleanup.

- Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can't participate in every project or activity. If it's not possible to say no to a particular invitation or demand, then try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.

- Don't abandon healthy habits. Don't let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity. You'll need both during the hectic season.

- Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.

- Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.

These are recommendations from experts. Perhaps some apply to your holiday situation, even if it is a very happy one. Or perhaps they can spur your own ideas for ways of coping with holiday anxiety if you don't find the season as wonderful as others do.

Good luck, and happy holidays.

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