De-stress the Holidays

family at holiday tableDoes the approach of the winter holidays—beginning with Thanksgiving and ending sometime after New Year's—fill you with delight or dread?

Women often feel the most pressure to plan, shop, cook, decorate and coordinate seasonal rituals, gifts, mailings and parties. We try to do too much, for too many people, in too little time. The holidays may also remind us of losses—of loved ones, friends, homes, marriages, health, jobs—that stir sad feelings.

No wonder some of us start the season aglow with anticipatory joy only to end up, weeks later, feeling awful. "Exhaustion, depression, sleeplessness, poor appetite, overeating, and irritability are all signs of stress," says Dorothy W. Cantor, PhyD, president of the American Psychological Foundation and a psychologist who is in private practice in Westfield, N.J.

There are good health reasons to avoid holiday stress. Women suffer stress-induced depression more often than men and are more likely to experience depression from seasonal affective disorder caused by reduced daylight. Research also shows that death rates peak across the United States in December and January, regardless of climate, for both cardiac and noncardiac causes. Holiday stress is one reason why.

Yet stress doesn't have to be part of your holidays.

Taking positive actions now to plan the upcoming season will reduce pressures and increase your enjoyment of what can be a lovely time of year. What's more, you can arm yourself with quick "escape valve" techniques to remove stress when you're in the midst of the most hectic days.

Ditch the great expectations

"The biggest stress is expectations—those that others have of us and those we impose upon ourselves," says Mary Jo Kreitzer, PhD, RN, director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing and associate professor of nursing, University of Minnesota. "We focus on buying more presents, baking more cookies, going to more concerts or parties. Our schedules fill up and our pocketbooks empty."

Expectations of how the holidays should be may keep us from enjoying a period of simpler, more meaningful joys. Here's a guide for planning stress-free holidays. Start the tasks near the top of the list a couple of months before the holidays if you can and work your way down the list. When the holidays arrive, you'll be able to relax!