Staying Stress-Free Through The Holidays

By Maureen Sangiorgio

I remember when I was about 12 years old, I just HAD to have this new bike. I saw it at Kresge’s department store during back-to-school shopping with my mom, and I couldn’t think of anything else. I even dreamed about it. It was fuchsia, had a banana seat, and a high sissy bar in the back. My parents knew how excited I was about it, so we went to pick it up about a week before Christmas. I actually sat on it in the back seat of the car coming back from the store!

When did holiday thoughts turn from that unbridled anticipation to sheer dread? Is that the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood? Why are the holidays so stressful?

According to Bethlehem psychologist Frank Barbehenn, M.S., there are two types of stress – good stress and bad stress. Good stress can stimulate us to meet a deadline. Bad stress leaves you feeling anxious and depressed. “We get into trouble when we don’t know how to turn bad stress into good stress,” says Barbehenn, also a Diplomate, American Psychotherapy Association. “A major cause of bad stress during this time of the year is not knowing what the holidays really signify to you. The real meaning of the holiday season will vary for each individual person. If the holidays end up being meaningless to you, you’re going to suffer from bad stress. If you can stop and ask yourself which activities are really important to you, such as attending religious services or helping the needy, rather than sending out 150 holiday cards to people you hardly speak to anymore, you’ve turned bad stress in to good stress.”

“During the holiday season, most people feel a lot of pressure to pull off the perfect holiday,” says Judy Illingworth, LCSW, St. Luke’s Hospital and Health Network. “We have an unrealistic, preconceived notion that’s impossible to bring to life because of all the extra work involved. There are so many additional demands on our time, and most families today are already very busy. Between all the extra parties, shopping, baking, cleaning, and entertaining, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and lose the real meaning of the holidays.”

And in most households, all that extra pressure falls on the shoulders of women. According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, nearly half of all women in the U.S. experience heightened stress during the holidays. About 60 percent report feeling nervous or sad, and just over half report symptoms of fatigue. “In years past, the woman of the house stayed home, and absorbed all those extra duties,” notes Illingworth. “But today, both partners must work, because you need two incomes coming in just to survive.”

Health Effects of Stress

When you’re stressed, the fight or flight response kicks in, enabling you to, say, run from that huge tiger trying to have you for dinner. But many studies have shown that long-term stress can have a negative effect on your health, causing wear and tear on the body. Health problems include digestive upsets and obesity, and affect the immune, nervous, and cardiovascular ssystems. If you feel the following symptoms, contact a physician: fatigue, depression, chest pain or pressure, fast heart beat, dizziness, shakiness, difficulty breathing, and poor sleep.

If the holidays have you so stressed out you’d like to hide out in the North Pole until it’s all over, read on for ways to keep your holiday stress in check:

Make a Wish List. “Write down all the things you would like to accomplish during the holiday season,” Illingworth says. “Put the most important activities at the top. That way, if you run out of time, you’ve accomplished the most important tasks. Often, just seeing all those activities in writing can make it very clear to you that your wish list is too ambitious.” In Illingworth’s household, she found baking five types of cookies just took too much time, so now she buys her cookies. “You can also share tasks, such as asking your friends to bake one type of cookie to share. That takes less time, yet you have a variety of cookies on hand if company comes over.”

Call the gang together. “In our family, we have a briefing before and after the holidays to discuss which traditions we’d like to keep, and which ones we can let go or cut back on,” says Barbehenn. “For example, we found out the kids really like to buy toys for other children in a hospital. We also ask the little ones to draw what they think the ideal holiday would look like for them.”

Just say NO. “This is probably one of the most difficult things for people to do, but it’s critical to do in order to avoid stress not only during the holidays, but also the rest of the year,” says Barbehenn. “Ask yourself if the activity is really that meaningful to you. We all get invited to so many parties during the holidays, but do we really feel each one is a priority? You don’t want to spend time mindlessly when you can use that time focusing on what’s important to you, even if it means just taking a break and relaxing at home. You matter as much as anybody else.” Stuck for what to say? Barbehenn advises the following: “I would love to come over, but can’t make it.”

Take a rain check. Spread out the social gatherings over more than just the holiday season. “Instead of trying to see everyone in December, make plans to get together in January,” says Illingworth. “It’s so much less stressful knowing you have an extra week or two to get those extra presents. You can also take advantage of the after-Christmas sales.” She also suggests you pick a date instead of just saying you’ll get together at a later time. “That way, you’re sparing that person’s feelings because you’re communicating very clearly and sincerely that you would like to spend some time with them.”

Ask around. “Email your friends and extended family and ask what holiday traditions are very important to them,” says Barbehenn. “Sometimes you might be surprised by what you find out. For example, now that Grandma is gone, no one really wants to take over all the responsibility of cooking an entire Thanksgiving dinner. They might prefer going out to dinner instead.”

Take a breather. Barbehenn suggests stepping back once a week for a few minutes to evaluate the upcoming week. “Sometimes by taking stock a little at a time, you can nip mounting stress in the bud. A Sunday night would work, where you can look at your upcoming schedule. Step back and take a look at the game plan and ask yourself, ‘Is this what I really want?’ If you feel stressed, make some changes. Many people go on autopilot, push through the holidays, and come out dazed and exhausted at the end. You need to take care of yourself.”

Have a shopping strategy. Don’t spend a lot of time driving around aimlessly looking for the best bargains. Instead, have a plan. Do research online; before you go shopping you’ll find that most, if not all of your favorite local boutiques, have websites so that you can get a head start on your shopping. “I make my three kids give me their list, then I comparison shop,” says Illingworth. “And it’s important to stick to the list, otherwise you can get overwhelmed by making things more complicated.”

Tame the green-eyed monster. “It’s very common for our personal weaknesses to rise to the surface during the holidays because of all the added stress,” says Barbehenn. “If you have feelings of inadequacy and jealousy, it’s important to remember that you don’t know other people’s problems. You don’t know what goes on in their relationship behind closed doors. Everyone has problems.”

Lighten up. Illingworth suggests putting yourself in the mindset that with all the extra activities this time of year, including unplanned events, something is bound to go wrong. Try to have a sense of humor. Chances are in the future, you’ll be laughing about it. “One year our beautifully decorated Christmas tree fell over, and broke the ornaments and the lights,” she recalls. “My husband was so stressed out, because we were expecting company within minutes. He just swept it up in disgust and shoved it in the closet. When family came in, and wanted to see the tree, we ushered them to the closet. It was hilarious.”

Maureen Sangiorgio is an award-winning consumer health writer based in Macungie.

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