The holidays really are the best of times and the worst of times. Our tidings of comfort and joy can so easily be devoured by the insatiable stress to do it all, be it all, and buy it all.
And that stress is nothing to ho, ho, ho about, either. It increases your risk of illness and even death. One study, published in the Oct. 12, 1999, issue of the journal Circulation, suggested holiday stress and overindulgence help explain the soaring rate of fatal heart attacks in December and January.
Yet 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:
Stress Master:Psychologist Alice Domar, director of the Mind/Body Center for Women's Health at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, and author of the book Self-Nurture.
Strategy:Cut yourself some slack!
- Tip 1. Shop so you don't drop. Domar's ritual is to take a personal day off work in the middle of the first week of December. "I hit the mall as soon as the doors open, carrying nothing but an empty backpack and my credit cards,'' she says. "The crowds haven't yet descended, the salespeople are still helpful, and there's plenty of stuff on the shelves. When I've bought too much to carry, I go back to the car, drop it off, and go back in again. It's amazing how much I can accomplish.'' If she finds something she really likes -- say a hurricane lamp at Crate and Barrel -- she'll buy an assortment in different colors and give one to each of several people on her list. "My sister-in-law, my friend, and my co-worker never talk to each other,'' she says. "They'll never know.'' And of course, catalogs and Internet retailers make it possible to shop without leaving the comforts of home.
- Tip 2. Treat yourself. All that hustling and bustling can drain you. Domar suggests that for every 10 presents you buy for others, you select a little indulgence for yourself. "I might go with a little Godiva truffle or a Dave Barry calendar -- nothing expensive, just a little pick-me-up.'' She also recommends regular exercise and making time for a movie date with your partner, a soak in a hot tub, or a solitary evening of soothing music.
- Tip 3. Skip the Nutcracker. Or if that is simply too much heresy, go ahead and take in the ballet but forgo the big menorah lighting, or the Santa parade, or the holiday ice show. The point is, don't drag yourself or your family from event to event. Think quality, not quantity. Domar recommends allowing each child to pick two events as must-dos. "The Nutcracker will be around next year, I promise,'' she says.
- Tip 4. Stretch the season. If December is a hotbed of socializing, the weeks that follow tend to be a wasteland. That's why Domar proposes people schedule their holiday bashes for mid-January (her own office party is set for Jan. 14.) By then, guests actually welcome the idea of a party, and you'll have the luxury of time to put it together. And just because the last Scotch pine needle has been vacuumed out of the carpet doesn't mean you can't incorporate a holiday theme. Domar suggests asking guests to bring a fruitcake and wear the tackiest present they received.
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.''
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.''