How to keep the 'happy' in the holidays

Stress-busting tips to enjoy the holiday season

November 24, 2014
Happy couple

Roast the turkey. Bake the pies. Decorate the house. Buy the gifts. The list goes on.

Sometimes the demands of the holiday season can run rampant over the celebration itself. A survey by the American Psychological Association found more than eight out of 10 Americans anticipate excessive stress during the holidays.

How can you enjoy the season amid the stress? It helps to remember that days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day are not typically life-altering events, says Jody M. Rawles, MD, associate professor and interim chair of the UC Irvine Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior.

"In reality, June is usually considered by the psychiatry community to be a more stressful month than December," Rawles explains. "June usually carries more monumental changes — people get married or move or graduate and have to find jobs. The holidays are just days. They shouldn't be as disruptive as people think."

People tend to become overwhelmed, frustrated or sad during the holiday period because of heightened expectations.

"Our culture and the media set a high bar," says Rawles. "We're supposed to be this ideal cross between Norman Rockwell and Martha Stewart. We have to have this incredible meal for family and friends, and everyone is supposed to have a wonderful time. But life is complicated."

In reality, family members don't always get along. The turkey is dry. The kids have the flu.

"Not every husband orders a Lexus for his wife and has it shipped in two days with a big bow on it," says Rawles. In fact, who does that?

Set realistic expectations for the holidays, he suggests. If money is an issue, establish a budget and stick to it. Enlist your kids and your spouse in holiday plans and decisions so that everyone is on the same page.

Some people may need to do extra planning to ward off holiday pitfalls. High stress levels can trigger bad health habits, like stress eating or drinking too much. Strategize in advance to deal with food and drink temptations, he advises.

People who are recently separated or widowed may have to be proactive to make sure they aren't alone or lonely. People with mood disorders, particularly seasonal affective disorder, may need to take extra measures to ward off sadness or depression, such as adhering to an exercise regimen or seeing a mental health professional on a regular basis.

"As a society, we do value holidays," says Rawles. "But we may have to take preventive measures to make sure they don't become depressing days."

Tips for holiday stress-busting

  • Don't worry about your weight. Studies show most people gain less than one pound during the holiday season. Try using a small plate to sample holiday buffet dishes. Don't skip meals or allow yourself to become overly hungry before a party or big meal. Talk a walk after a dinner or party. Hit the gym extra hard in January.
  • Pace yourself when drinking. Have "drink spacers," a non-alcoholic drink between alcoholic drinks. Enlist a designated driver.
  • Talk to kids about realistic expectations for gifts and holiday activities.
  • Take small steps to deal with the demands of the holidays instead of trying to do everything at once. Shop online.
  • Spend a few hours doing volunteer work, or buy a gift for a toy drive. Helping others who are less fortunate helps put things in perspective.
  • Take time for yourself, such a daily walk or a soak in the tub.
  • Get plenty of rest and make sure kids get plenty of rest.
  • Don't be afraid to say no. Set limits.

Sources: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, American Psychological Association, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Psychiatric Association.

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