For many of us, the holidays were magical in childhood, carefree times to be savored. But then we grew into hordes of harried adults, falling victim to the season's high expectations. Holiday stress has become as much a tradition as the Christmas ham.
"People are overcommitted," says Marc D. Skelton, PhD, PsyD, a psychologist in Laguna Niguel, Calif. "Christmas and other holidays around this time are always supposed to be fun, and you're supposed to do a good job in terms of entertaining friends and family."
When heart specialist John M. Kennedy, M.D., of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, stands at the scrub sink before an operation, he breathes deeply with seven-count exhales, visualizing how he wants the procedure to go. "Athletes use these techniques to perform under pressure, but we can all call on them in our regular lives," Dr. Kennedy says. It starts with knowing what kind of breathing works best for the challenge you're facing. Here's what the latest research shows.
In an attempt to live up to the season's tall orders, "people will just run from pillar to post," he says. It's not even "Christmas" anymore, some of his clients lament. It's "Stressmas."
We also overload ourselves with inherited traditions, even when they no longer fit into our busy lives, says Elaine Rodino, PhD, a psychologist in Santa Monica, Calif. If one's mother "baked a thousand cookies and gave them to everyone she knew," Rodino says, "people feel obligated to follow the same kinds of things."
But there is a secret to cutting holiday stress: Just say no.
You don't have to bake all those cookies, Rodino says. "You can start your own traditions."
And you can learn to say no to lots of other demands, too, including party invitations that don't entice or a whopping gift list that could clean out a mall.
Holiday Stress-Reduction Tip: Decide What Matters Most
"The spirit of the holidays is gratitude and giving," says Patti Breitman, co-author of the book How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty.
Only a Scrooge would dispute that generosity is admirable. "It's very satisfying to offer support to the people we love, help out a neighbor, or do something positive for the community," Breitman writes. But "the conflict arises when we continually agree to things that please everyone but ourselves or when we commit to tasks for which we have no time or desire."
By saying "yes" to every holiday invitation and demand that comes your way, you could wind up exhausted and possibly broke. Instead, reflect on what you cherish most about the holidays, experts say, whether it's sending greeting cards to maintain relationships, tree trimming, baking, religious observances, seeing family and friends, supporting a charitable cause, or just relaxing.
When you know your priorities, you can turn down the less important things, Breitman says. "It's easier to say 'no' if you know what you're saying 'yes' to."