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Video: How to handle holiday stress

updated 11/12/2007 12:49:34 PM ET 2007-11-12T17:49:34

For many Americans, the merry months of November and December become less "holly and jolly" and more "strained and stressful." Michelle Callahan, a psychologist and life coach, was invited to appear on “Today” to offer advice on beating holiday stress. Here are her tips:

Why is stress synonymous with the holidays?
Stress has become synonymous with the holidays because we have created this fairy tale version of what life during the holidays looks like, and no one can live up to those expectations. They are too many and the measure of success is too great, for example: Eat without gaining weight, spend more than you make, find time to decorate when you don't have time to sleep, smile in the faces of people you dislike, engage in activities regarding the true meaning of the holidays when our culture and our children are focused on nothing more than commercialism, etc., etc.

Is the answer that we simply don't say "no" enough?
Oftentimes, yes. We try to take on more responsibilities than we can handle and because so many of us have difficulty saying "no," we over commit (even more than we normally do), and then we beat ourselves up, are unhappy, and disappoint others when we don't deliver. We shouldn't promise our kids significantly more than we can afford to buy. We don't have to lecture them on the grim realities of the family budget, but we should feel comfortable managing their expectations and teaching them that they can't have everything they see or want.

How do you keep cool with potential family conflicts?
The holidays are definitely one of the most inappropriate times to continue a personal conflict with someone. It is close to a "grin and bear it" type of situation. There is nothing wrong with putting space between you and the person who you don't get a long with. Don't try to force a long conversation or say nice things you don't mean (it's okay to be true to yourself and authentic without being rude or inappropriate). Be polite and relocate to another seat or room. If someone tries to bait you into a disagreement, firmly tell them that you are not going to discuss the subject on this holiday and walk away. Depending on the schedule for the day, you can even show up earlier or later to minimize exposure to the most difficult people. Also, if your nuclear family members have problems with other people, be sure to sit down and talk to your kids and spouse about how to handle things before you interact with guests or go visit someone else.

Is this the time to "makeup" with family members?
Given how emotionally charged the holidays are, many people do feel the need or desire to reconcile with family members — either because they have always really wanted it and need to be with them around the holidays or simply because it's the "norm" and they feel guilty not trying to make things better. They get into trouble when either the other person doesn't want to reconcile at all or at least not at this exact moment, or when the other person is willing but they still don't get the storybook result. In the movies, people's normal personalities are transformed by the holidays (i.e. Scrooge) and everyone is supposed to forget past sins and start fresh in the new year, so when you add all of that baggage to the scenario, you can have a lot riding on calling up your long lost friend/family member who may be thrilled or may have already moved on. The whole thing equals more stress!

If you want to try to reconcile, I would again approach it with realistic expectations that this person's life could be in a totally different place and you have to promise yourself that if they are not willing or interested in making it right, that you will still go on to have a great holiday and not obsess over why and how.

How can a person take two seconds out of their day to calm down?
Step away from what you are doing. Take a walk, take a break. We cook, clean and shop ourselves into a frenzy. Sometimes you need to stop and get a cup of tea, pop into the gym before the day is over, meditate or pray, or have a good laugh. We need to laugh at ourselves for making ourselves crazy because this madness is our own creation.

We want to feel good about ourselves, our family and the holiday. What should we do to put a smile on our faces? (volunteer? workout? count blessings?)
Volunteering and helping others is one of the best ways to put your problems into perspective. Despite all of the stress you may feel when you discover that others have so little or nothing, and you are upset over standing in line for a new Playstation that costs more money than some people make in a month, it helps you to relax and be thankful. It is also a good idea to do whatever helps you relieve stress so workout, read, watch TV (don't overeat), call friends, watch sports and laugh. If you are getting confused about what the holidays mean, make a list of things you have to be thankful for and keep it all in perspective.

There's still time to set goals on a more realistic holiday. Here's how to start:
Set limits that you can live with in all of the areas of your life where you have the most demands. For example, set a budget on how much you will spend on gifts, but allow yourself to purchase those things that are must haves. Talk to your kids in advance so that their expectations are realistic also. Set limits on how many holiday events you can attend, how many people you can buy for, how much time you can spend cleaning, decorating, cooking, etc., how many desserts you will allow yourself, and so on.

What about: possible serious depression?
If you have been feeling down prior to the holidays, you may be experiencing depression as opposed to the holiday blues. Many people feel sad around the holidays because their lives don't match their fairy tales, and they don't have the close relationships with family or friends that define the holidays or they don't have the money to celebrate in the way that they would like. If they find that after the holidays, their symptoms of sadness are continuing and they aren't functional (getting out of bed, going to work), they should consider seeing someone professionally. In fact, there is nothing wrong with seeing a counselor during the holidays, even if you aren't seriously depressed, simply because you need someone to talk to and help you manage your emotions and expectations. One easy way to know the difference between being sad and being depressed is how functional you are. If in the absence of a significant life change like a death or divorce, you can't get out of bed or cry for several days of the week, or can't perform your normal activities like showering, getting dressed and going to work, that's leaning more towards depression than sadness.

Michelle R. Callahan, Ph.D., is a relationship expert, coach, developmental psychologist, and writer.

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