Christmas trees and Thanksgiving turkeys are supposed to be part of the "most wonderful time of the year." But with the family squabbling, costs of gift-giving and pressure to create the perfect dinner, the holiday season can quickly become much less magical. One out of five Americans worry that holiday stress will affect their physical health, according to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association. NEWSWEEK consulted with psychologists and depression experts to learn the best ways to stay cool (and possibly even have fun) during the holiday season:
1. Do not expect a Norman Rockwell painting. From "It's a Wonderful Life" to "A Charlie Brown Christmas," we've all been inundated with messages about how family-friendly our holiday season should be. "If you have a discrepancy between expectations and reality, that distance can cause you to feel sad," says Philip Ninan, former director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Program at Emory University School of Medicine. One of the worst things we can do is create unrealistic expectations about the holiday season that no family can live up to. Start off your holiday season without any rigid notions of what your celebration should look like. The stress of getting those table settings perfected or presenting half a dozen side dishes plus a host of gorgeous desserts can take you away from the pleasures of spending time with the people you've invited.
2. Don't Drop the Exercise Routine. One of the most stressful parts of the holidays can be trying to maintain a healthy diet despite the heavy meals and ubiquitous snack bowls. But it's not just the turkey that's adding on the pounds—turns out, stress can induce weight gain. Luckily, exercise is a great way to lose some weight while gaining peace of mind--numerous studies have linked exercise to better mental health, less tress and more self esteem. Block out some time in your holiday schedule to hit the gym or take a jog. (And if you want to know what kind of toll your Thanksgiving feast is taking, check out NEWSWEEK's round up of fall's most fattening foods.
3. Stick to a Schedule. Dreading your aunt's Christmas party? Can't quite stomach six hours of dinner with relatives that get on your nerves? If you know that beforehand, give the host a call in advance to give warning that you may have another engagement that you need to leave early for. It's OK to cut short a social engagement for a piece of your sanity.
4. Give Santa a Makeover. The average American spends about $900 on Christmas presents last year—enough to put a dent in a bank account, if not push a family into debt. Christmas should not mean maxing out your credit card—if you can't afford loads of presents, do not buy for everyone in your extended family. Instead, try arranging a Secret Santa with your family or co-workers, where you buy for only one person in the group. Not only will it save you some money and headache, it will give you a chance to get one really great present—rather than a lot of rushed purchases. Chances are your family or colleagues will be happy you suggested a way to save some money.
5. Remember Yourself. It can be pretty easy to forget to schedule "me" time in the holiday season—but it could be essential to your sanity. "If you have no time for recharging, or for emotions to catch up with events, don't expect to have a positive holiday season," says Ninan. He suggests delegating tasks to others in your household in order to steal a few seconds for yourself, either to exercise, read or anything else you find relaxing.
6. Recognize Real Disorders. If your sadness seems more serious than the holiday blues, it may be a sign of a more significant mental-health condition, such as depression. (The Mayo Clinic has this list of signs of depression). If you find yourself not enjoying any elements of the holiday season, the experts strongly suggest seeking out professional help—you can start with your family physician. Also, the lack of light during winter hours can be hard on anyone, but it's particularly difficult for those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. More information on SAD is available from the National Institute of Health.