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Holidays are filled with stressful situations – here are ways to cope

Wed, Dec. 13, 2006
By Cecilia Oleck
Maybe all you want for Christmas is to get through the shopping without getting strung out; the fetes without frustration and the hobnobbing without needing to heal from a holiday hangover at the end.

Who doesn’t?

“People have unrealistic expectations of themselves, of other people, of what the holidays are supposed to be,” says Pamela Vaccarelli, a mental health expert with the Michigan Institute for Health Enhancement in Rochester Hills. “A lot of people lose focus … and think that it’s about making it perfect.”

Things that would be minor annoyances can turn into full-blown stress enhancers. Loneliness, depression, financial problems, family fights and alcohol abuse – difficult at any time of year – can seem even more intense during the holidays.

With the season in full swing, you might feel like it’s already too late to salvage your serenity. But there’s still plenty of planning, prepping and partying left to do. And with that comes stress.

Here is advice from the experts on keeping your cool in stressful holiday situations.


_Stress: Teeming parking lots, frenetic shoppers and too many people to buy for have you irritable and anxious – more Grinch-like than generous.

Relief: Forget the perfect gift. “People focus a lot on finding the perfect gift. I don’t know if that really exists,” says Kim Slappy, 35, of Detroit, owner of For the Love of Shopping concierge service (www.fortheloveofshopping.org). “I know it can sound kind of cliche, but it’s still true – it’s really the thought behind the gift that counts.”

Shop off-hours and online. Slappy suggests shopping weekday mornings or early afternoons. She also recommends taking a break if shopping is going to be an all-day affair.

“Fit in something that is pleasurable,” she says. “That way shopping doesn’t seem like it’s so cumbersome.”

Shopping online can help save time.

Find help. Use valet and other services, like free gift-wrapping and personal shopping. Save time and frustration by asking salespeople to help you locate items on your list.

Or try a concierge service like Slappy’s to cut out some of the least pleasurable tasks – mailing gifts and cards, wrapping presents, cleaning the house, grocery shopping and running errands. If you can’t afford to hire someone, team up with a friend, neighbor or family member to split up tasks.


_Stress: It’s your ex-spouse’s turn to celebrate the holidays with your children. Holidays – with a focus on family and reminiscing – can be a painful reminder for a family that isn’t together, especially if you won’t be able to be around your children.

Relief: Create new traditions. “Learn to start new traditions with your children,” says Kathleen Sutton, who trains facilitators for DivorceCare support groups at St. William Catholic Parish in Walled Lake, Mich.

It could be something that you do together sometime during the season, not necessarily on the holiday itself. Modify older family traditions to suit the current family situation.

Reach out to others. Maybe you know others who will be alone during the holidays. Plan a get-together, whether it’s dinner at a restaurant, a full-fledged holiday meal at someone’s house or dessert and coffee.

Help the needy. Volunteering at a soup kitchen or other outreach for a few hours Christmas Day can also help. “Giving of yourself can help take a little bit of the hurt away,” says Sutton.


_Stress: Money’s tight, gift-giving expectations are high, as is your anxiety.

Relief: Give to the needy. “My family, rather than getting presents for each other, we’re putting a certain amount of money into adopting a family for Christmas,” says Slappy.

It helps save money and cuts down on excess.

Give to just one person. A gift exchange is another way to cut costs – rather than buying for everyone, each person buys for just one other person in the family or group of friends. Set a spending limit and be creative. Everyone still gets a gift and you’re able to focus special attention on that one person.

Make a list. Know what you are able to spend, make a list of how that money needs to be spent and then stick to it, says Pamela Vaccarelli, a mental health expert with the Michigan Institute for Health Enhancement in Rochester Hills.

“Don’t overspend,” she says. “Be realistic with your holiday goals.”


_Stress: Your family always fights during the holidays.

Relief: Don’t join in. “With some families, that’s how they bond,” says Penny Kennedy, a grief specialist counselor and psychologist in Birmingham, Mich. “But you can make it your intention that you are not going to join into any argument.”

Kennedy recommends going to another room or for a walk if an argument breaks out.

“Don’t join in, don’t even defend anybody because that can make it heat up more,” she says.

Find allies ahead of time. Make a pact that if others – especially those known to instigate arguments – start fighting, you will not join in, try to steer the conversation in another direction or just leave the room together.

“Knowing ahead of time and preparing for it is important,” says Kennedy. “And having at least one member of the family to be on the same page with.”

Laugh it off. “Humor is sometimes a lifesaving device,” she says.

Rather than making fun of certain people, make light of the situation instead.

“Saying ‘Look at this, it’s Christmas Day and we’re all fighting – Wouldn’t that be a picture for Norman Rockwell?’ ” says Kennedy.


_Stress: You aren’t much in the mood for celebrating. Instead you feel empty, depressed and lonely – even if there are other people around.

Relief: Figure out why. Identify the reasons why you might be feeling blue. Is it from being away from family, mourning the loss of someone you love, missing a relative who is in the military or a combination of factors?

Knowing what’s behind your feelings can help you know better how to deal with them, says Vaccarelli.

Do less. “Cut back on anything you don’t want to do at the holidays,” says Kennedy, the grief specialist. “If you don’t want to cook, don’t cook.”

Alert others that this is a hard time for you and enlist them to help with some of the things that you don’t feel you can do.

If the idea of being around many people makes you feel uncomfortable, try to be a part of smaller get-togethers, or stay only for a little while at the larger ones.

Talk about it. “Try not to avoid your feelings about it,” says Kennedy. “I think we try to avoid them and put on a happy face.”

Kennedy suggests taking time each day to be by yourself to think, to cry, to relax and also seeking out someone to talk to about how sad, worried or lonely you are.

Do something good for yourself. “Stress can affect all four levels of our existence … the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual,” says Vaccarelli.

Doing something – whether meditations, deep-breathing exercises or taking a daily walk – can help improve your outlook on all four of those levels.


_Stress: Bad eating and exercise habits have taken over. It almost feels like it’s too late to salvage any kind of health routine.

Relief: Don’t worry. The good news is that the average weight gain over the holidays is less than one pound.

Don’t give up. Holiday weight gains aren’t usually shed and instead build up year after year. So rather than putting off picking up better habits until after the new year, start doing something healthy for yourself each day.

Do something simple. It could be as easy as drinking more water, going for a 15 minute walk, taking a yoga break in the middle of wrapping presents or snacking on fresh veggies or fruit instead of holiday sweets.

Simple exercises like pushups, lunges and crunches take about 15 minutes to do and require no equipment, but will help improve your health, says Linda Geyer, co-owner of Peak Physique Fitness Training in Troy.

© 2006, Detroit Free Press.

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