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Don't Invite Holiday Stress Into Your Home

Toned-down expectations may lead to more joy, less anxiety, experts say

FRIDAY, Dec. 25 (HealthDay News) -- Between hurrying to score the last parking spot at the mall and preparing your home for out-of-town guests, the holiday season can be mentally exhausting.

For women especially, emotions tend to run high as they put pressure on themselves to create picture-perfect gatherings, while holding down jobs and taking care of children.

"During the holidays, our lives become even more stressful as we try to juggle our usual responsibilities with extra holiday preparation and complicated family dynamics," Dr. Eric Marcus, a psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, said in a news release from the hospital.

If your household resembles the idealized 1950s' television-version of a family, all of the craziness will culminate in your clan gathered at the hearth, merrily singing Christmas carols. If your family is closer to normal, some tension and conflict will arise during all that family togetherness.

To minimize stress, Dr. Margaret Altemus, a psychiatrist and director of the Payne Whitney Women's Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, suggests making some time for yourself during the holidays.

Being alone, even for a half hour or so, can help you feel calmer. If your in-laws have parked themselves on your sofa and show no signs of leaving until after New Year's, go out by yourself. Take a walk or get some exercise. Physical activity helps alleviate stress and the sunlight can help lift your mood, Altemus said.

Time for yourself may also mean taking time to be with your friends, who may not push those buttons in the same way your relatives can.

The holidays can also be difficult on those who feel isolated. If you are feeling alone, seek out the support of your community, religious or social services. Getting involved with volunteering can help you feel needed and connected.

When it comes to preparing for the holidays, lower your expectations and remember you will not be able to do all you'd like to do if you had unlimited time, energy and perhaps a household staff. Forget about trying to make handmade gifts for the neighbors, sewing a holiday pageant costume for your child, sending out your greeting cards and learning how to cook a crown roast all in the same week.

Prioritize what is most important for you and your loved ones. Talk with your family about what they value in the celebrations. You may find that your expectations are higher than everyone else's.

For many families, money is tighter than it was in previous years. When buying gifts, don't blow your budget then spend the next several months worried about paying your credit card bill and regretting the purchases.

If you are starting to feel stressed, ask for help. If it's too much to host the gathering this year, ask someone else to take a turn -- they may welcome the chance. If you run out of time to bake, buy dessert or ask guests to bring it.

And take some time to reflect on what the holiday means to you, the psychiatrists suggest. That may mean reminiscing about happy times with loved ones, focusing on religious observances or thinking about your best moments and accomplishments of the past year.

More information

The American Heart Association has advice for coping with stress.

-- Jennifer Thomas

SOURCE: New York-Presbyterian Hospital, news release, December 2009

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