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Beating Holiday Stress

It is possible to survive the holiday frenzy without feeling frantic -- if you know how. Here are top tips from some of the nation's leading stress experts.

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Stress Master: Nutritional biochemist Judith Wurtman, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of the book Managing Your Mind & Mood Through Food.

Strategy:Eat to stave off tension as well as hunger.

  • Tip 1. Carbo-charge your body. It's 4 p.m. on Dec. 23, and you're stuck in an interminable line at the post office. It's time for a snack, but not just any snack. Wurtman says the secret is choosing carbohydrates with low or no fat -- maybe a handful of pretzels or, if you crave something sweet, a few Tootsie Rolls or jellybeans. "At least 30 grams' worth -- look at package labels to get amounts,'' Wurtman advises. Her research over several years shows such carbohydrates boost the powerful brain chemical serotonin, which helps the body feel calmer. Curiously, one snack to avoid at such times is fruit: fructose is the only carbohydrate that appears not to stimulate serotonin.
  • Tip 2. Eat mini-meals. When you eat stress-reducing foods, the effects last only about two to three hours. If you're up against chronic holiday stress, try eating several small meals or snacks throughout the day instead of a couple of big ones. Just be careful to keep your total intake of calories about the same.
  • Tip 3. Zero in on stress points and fix them. The holidays often generate a vicious cycle: Stress causes people to eat more and richer foods, which causes them to gain weight, which makes them feel even more stressed. "It's better to prevent or deflect the stress than deal with it,'' says Wurtman. For example, say you're a working mom who comes home at 6 p.m. to begin your second job, and you eat because you feel overwhelmed. Instead, plan ahead. Give your family written instructions on what to do to help you, and give yourself 10 guilt-free minutes of time-out to relax.

Stress Master:Robert Sapolsky, professor of biological sciences and neurology at Stanford University and author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Disease and Coping.

Strategy:Put whatever's stressing you in perspective. Chances are your stress level isn't high because you're running for your life from an attacking lion. So just imagine explaining your angst over failing to create a Martha Stewart table to a really empathetic giraffe. If your holiday woes would sound like utter nonsense to the giraffe, you're describing stressors of your own making and you can conquer them.

  • Tip 1. Ratchet down stress by lowering expectations. Remember, those Norman Rockwell families are strictly two-dimensional -- don't expect them to bear much resemblance to your own family gatherings. "For people living at the other end of the country, this is often one of the few or only times of the year to see some people of great significance,'' Sapolsky observes. The result: "this stressful pressure to cram all this emotion and bonding and intimacy into a very hectic few days.'' Expect some irritations and imperfections, then relax and have a good time in spite of them.
  • Tip 2. Don't go it alone. While the notion of holiday stress conjures up visions of jam-packed mall parking lots and tense dinners with the in-laws, many people suffer stress because they face the holidays by themselves. Sapolsky advises getting proactive by connecting with family, friends, even others who face similar isolation.
  • Tip 3. Remember the reason for the season. Some people find the holiday season stressful because it seems robbed of its authentic meaning. Instead they are awash in a culture conspiring to crassly cash in on something that once had great personal significance. The antidote, says Sapolsky: "Take the time and effort to reaffirm what this season really means to you, whether it is about family, community, religion. Go help someone in need, to help yourself reaffirm what it is all about.''

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