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How Can I Stay Sane Through the Holidays?

The end-of-year holidays are supposed to be a time to reflect on our lives' bounty and joy and to savor the company of loved ones and friends.

So, what went wrong?

For too many of us, the holidays have become an ordeal to be soldiered through, full of the stresses of shopping and wrapping, entertaining and being entertained, and attempting to get more done than is humanly possible. They're also emotionally charged times when old wounds tend to hurt anew and old resentments burn bright.

Is there a way to restore the joy to this most joyful season?

Psychotherapist David Sternberg, who practices in Washington, D.C., says there are several steps we all can take to sidestep holiday angst. Here's his advice:

  • Adjust Expectations: Too many of us have unrealistic images in our minds of what the holidays should be like, Sternberg says, whether those expectations derive from our old family traditions or from media depictions of picture-perfect celebrations. "What gets people in trouble is not being flexible, open to other ideas," he explains. Instead of focusing on making sure your own traditions are upheld or trying to match that Hallmark-perfect scenario, keep in mind that "the holidays are about spending time with family and friends. Sometimes that gets lost," Sternberg says.
  • Plan for Things Not to Go As Planned: If you think everyone's going to show up for dinner on time, the kids will behave like Christmas angels, no food will be burned or undercooked, and everyone will be crazy about that centerpiece you slaved over, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment. Try to just take things as they come and you won't be disappointed, Sternberg suggests.
  • Avoid Unnecessary Conflict: On top of whatever other holiday-related stress and anxiety you may be feeling, the holidays present situations in which you may have to spend time with people you don't much like, Sternberg notes. "Plan ahead. If there are certain topics of conversation you can't talk with this person about, it's good to know that in advance" so you can have in mind a graceful way to duck out. "And you don't have to feel obligated to spend every minute with these people," he adds. "Spending some time apart will give you -- and them -- some space."
  • Drop the Superwoman Act: Sternberg says women in particular "feel they have to do everything themselves" during the holidays. "That's a big stressor" to many of his female patients, some of whom put so much pressure on themselves to perform that when the holidays are over, "They say they didn't even enjoy them," Sternberg reports. "You need to learn to ask others for help. You may find that others are very willing to help." (Personal experience note: I know that when I'm playing Superwoman, people are wary of offering to help because they think I'll bite their heads off or, worse, be critical of the job they do. It's easier to hang back and watch me do my thing than risk getting in my way. I need to fix that.)
  • Take Care: It's important to exercise moderation in your diet and to exercise your body all year round, but it's especially important during the holidays. "Create time to take care of yourself," Sternberg says. "Get some form of exercise every day, even if it's just 20 minutes of walking outside." And watch your food intake: "It's okay to enjoy food, but keep things in moderation," Sternberg cautions. Eating too much can make you feel lethargic and crabby.
  • Relax and Enjoy: If you're the one entertaining, Sternberg says, keep in mind that "Nobody's expecting your house to be perfect. There's no such thing, anyway. Just put out a spread and enjoy!"

What's stressing you out the most this holiday season? And what steps are you taking to lessen that stress?

Of interest: The organization DC Voices for Meal Choices (DVCM) plans an outdoor "eat-in" event Monday, Nov. 24, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on 19th Street between L and M streets NW to raise awareness of and garner support for the DC Menu Labeling and Education Act. The act would require chain restaurants with 10 or more locations nationwide to include nutritional information on menus or menu boards and is similar to recent initiatives in California and New York City. Click here for more information or check the DVCM blog.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  November 21, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Life's Big Questions  
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Next: Happy Days: Less TV, More Newspaper?

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