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.
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.''
Stress Master: Eric Brown, spokesman for the Center for a New American Dream, a Maryland-based, nonprofit organization urging Americans to shift their consumption to improve quality of life and the environment.
Strategy: Learn how to have more fun with less stuff! (A 1998 poll commissioned by the center and conducted by EDK Associates of New York found that 44% of Americans feel pressure to spend more than they can afford at holiday time, and only 28% report the holidays leave them feeling "joyful.")
Tip 1. Give the gifts money can't buy. By getting creative, you can avoid the stresses of traffic, crowded department stores -- and that lingering dissatisfaction that you spend a small fortune on generic gifts. Four out of five people say they would prefer a photo album filled with childhood memories to a store-bought gift. "My 65-year-old mother has all the stuff she needs, so I gave a donation in her honor to the county food bank,'' says Brown. "People increasingly are finding new ways to think outside the box -- to give gifts that show the relationship between the giver and the recipient.'' Other ideas: Adopt a koala bear in a child's name at the local zoo. Create an audio or video of a family elder reminiscing for their children and grandchildren. Illustrate and write a homemade story featuring your child as the main character. Make coupons redeemable for backrubs or homemade brownies. Or write to celebrities, asking for an autograph dedicated to the recipient.
Tip 2. Lick overspending. It takes an average of four months for a credit card user to pay off stress-inducing holiday bills, according to a 1999 report by the American Bankers Association. Instead try this: Decide how much you can afford to spend for each person on your list, then put that amount in cash in an envelope with that person's name on it. When the envelope is empty, you're done - no exceptions. Or freeze your credit cards in a jug of water, or mail them to a friend until the holidays are history. "The more you can inject a sense of humor and make it a game, the easier it'll be to live within your means,'' Brown says.
Tip 3. Follow your holiday bliss. "My wife and daughter and I actually prefer to just go away,'' Brown says. "We rent a cabin for Christmas Eve, Christmas, and the day after. It forces us leave all the distractions behind and just enjoy being together. We get in touch with what the holidays are all about.''