Merry Stressmas: 'Tis The Overwhelming Season


   Crowded, bustling malls, repeated trips to the airport to fetch long-lost relatives, and the constant shuffling of cookies and turkey out of your oven can translate into one reaction: stress. Christmas may be the season of love and celebration, but sometimes holiday festivities can become overwhelming.

   Dr. Margaret Altemus, a psychiatrist and director of the Payne Whitney Women's Program at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, says, "Some families feel stress from trying to meet expectations for a perfect holiday. For others, family conflicts arise from stress as they spend more time together."

   "During the holidays, our lives become even more stressful as we try to juggle our usual responsibilities with extra holiday preparation and complicated family dynamics," says Dr. Eric Marcus, a psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.

   This year, Drs. Altemus and Marcus try to keep your holiday stress to a minimum with the following advice:

* Don't wait until the last minute to make plans. If you have family difficulties, try to plan some time with friends. If you feel isolated you may want to seek out the support of your community, religious or social services. You may consider volunteering to help others in your community.

* Make time for yourself. Fifteen minutes of "alone time" may be just what you need to refresh you enough to handle all of your tasks. You might try taking a brisk walk around the block or some other outdoor activity. Exercise is a great stress reliever and winter sunlight can dramatically improve your mood.

* Don't be a perfectionist about the holidays. Prioritize the events that matter the most to you and your family. Understand that you can't do everything, so choose the things that you can accomplish and enjoy. Get input from your family and friends about what it is they would really enjoy doing this holiday. You may find that your expectations are higher than everyone around you.

* For gift shopping, remember that it's the thought that counts. Don't let competitiveness and perfectionism send you on too many shopping trips. Create a holiday shopping budget and stick to it. If you don't, you could feel anxious for months after the season as you struggle to pay bills.

* Simplify. Don't bake 20 different types of cookies unless you enjoy it. You and your family may enjoy fewer cookies but more time together. You may also try asking for help. Getting your family and friends involved in the holiday preparations may alleviate the stress of doing it all on your own.

* Remember that family time can be both wonderful and anxiety-provoking. Sometimes, expectations for reunions are too high, resulting in disappointment and frustration. Try to be realistic. Accept your family members and friends as they are and set aside grievances for a more appropriate time.

* Celebrate the memories of loved ones no longer here. Holidays can also be stressful as we confront the memories of those who have passed. This can be a normal part of the holiday experience and should be openly discussed and celebrated.

* Plan your time so that you take care of several errands on one trip. You will have more time to spend doing the things that you really want to do. Set aside specific days for shopping, cooking and visiting friends. You may also want to plan your menu in advance and make one big shopping trip.

* Take some time to think about what the holiday really means to you and your family. Time together, religious observance, reflection on your life and future goals -- let these aspects of the holidays keep things in perspective.

   These tips can help you to reduce stress and make the holidays a pleasure. Doing less may help you to enjoy the season more and that is really the best stress reliever of all.