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Keep your holiday stress in check with planning, focus on memories

  • Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  • Published Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, at 10:24 p.m.

— For Michael Flanigan, the holidays overflow with sweetness — pies, cakes and warm family time.

He revels in decorating the Christmas tree with Nat King Cole crooning softly in the background, whipping up a sweet potato pie, playing football on Thanksgiving with cousins.

Still, as an entrepreneur of a startup company making personalized gifts (theExpressionary.com), this time of year can get extremely busy, and with that comes a certain level of stress.

While the holidays are a wonderful time of year for enjoying holiday rituals, it’s inevitable that crowded malls, worsening traffic, and too many events in too little time will wear on us.

Flanigan, 25, mostly takes the holiday stress in stride. He tries not to fret about getting the perfect gift, and he’s learned it’s OK to say no to holiday parties to avoid getting overbooked.

“When things get really rough, I breathe and meditate and count my blessings, and I’m usually OK,” Flanigan said.

Experts believe planning and adjusting expectations — as well as taking deep breaths — can go a long way in minimizing stress this time of year.

“There are the commercials, and it’s so hyped up that it should just be perfect. And that is a very unrealistic expectation,” said Pamela Everett Thompson, an Atlanta psychologist.

Thompson said family dynamics also can be tricky, with some reverting to old behaviors when they go home. That said, every year provides a new opportunity to break away from old patterns, she said.

“For instance, there’s the daughter who has worked extra jobs to help her mother maintain a certain lifestyle and the moment she walks into the house, the mom is talking about how she needs new curtains. … Instead of getting into an argument or getting on a soapbox, the daughter can pleasantly smile and say, ‘I wish I could help, but I can’t.’ ”

Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of the Stress Institute based in Atlanta, said if people are feeling low, they should consider switching things up. She suggested volunteering or starting a new holiday tradition by going on a trip or decorating in a new way.

To control spending-related stress, Hall also recommended families organize holiday spending by creating a list of financial costs for gifts, as well as parties and other expenses. Be wary, she said, of emotional spending. If you struggle sticking to a budget at a mall, try shopping online or limiting your visits to a retail center to just a couple of days during the season, she said.

Thompson said it’s important to remember what makes this time of year so special, even magical, rarely comes in a box with a bow. It’s the memories — decorating the Christmas tree, lighting Hanukkah candles, singing songs around the fireplace.

“If people could focus on memories instead of creating that perfect gift, if they could focus on the laughter we share, and the reminiscing, even reminiscing over that pound cake you made which was a disaster, that is what sustains us,” Thompson said. “… Research indicates over and over and over the thing that contributes to well-being is that sense of belonging and connection to community and that we can create for free.” Meanwhile, Hall said she believes the devastation from Hurricane Sandy will make people more grounded this year.

Having a sense of gratitude can always put things in perspective, she said.

“Last year, I was feeling overwhelmed, and at the last minute, I put up a Christmas tree,” she said. “I put what I was thankful for on yellow Post-its on the tree. Then, my husband wrote what he was thankful for on turquoise Post-its. Then we put up lights. We kept the Post-it notes.”

Ways to lower party planning stress

For the host:

• In the weeks leading up to your party, plan the details and menu.

Hosts should be ready at least one hour before guests arrive. Of course, we all end up rushing around at the last minute, but if you try to hit that goal, you will come close, and then you’ll have time to relax. Put on relaxing music, have a glass of bubbly and admire all that is done.

• Write a schedule on a notepad, for example: 7 p.m. check roast; 7:30 start potatoes. Having the timing down is more than half the battle. The biggest source of stress is being unprepared and overwhelmed. Don’t let that happen to you.

• It is better to have an elegant, simple meal that you and everyone enjoy, than the beef Wellington that has left you uptight and sapped of energy. Try a fondue made with low-fat milk and reduced-fat cheese served with healthy dippers, such as broccoli, carrots, apples and whole-grain bread cubes. Or a colorful fruit platter. You’ll feel great about serving your guests a delicious appetizer chock full of nutrition without the stress of too many calories.

• Ask for help: Who wants to be stuck in the kitchen all night during their own party? Asking for help can relieve stress and makes guests feel a part of the event. Ask guests to bring dessert or beverages, and don’t be afraid to invite them into the kitchen to help rather than leave them standing around while you are trying to finish details.

• Decorate with Mother Nature: Often, hosts and hostesses are baffled on how to decorate. To remedy this, bring the outdoors in. Try filling hurricane candleholders with acorns from your backyard or let your food speak for itself.

For the guest:

• We can all get a little bit uptight when going to a party or formal dinner. Guests can control their stress by being prepared and going with the flow.

• Ask your host if there is anything you can do. Bring an appropriate gift (does not have to be expensive) such as a bottle of wine, flowers (in a vase ready to set on the table), or a book on something of interest to the host; know how to make small talk; don’t arrive more than a few minutes late; don’t be the last one to leave; and don’t overindulge in food and drink.

Keeping your cool

Here are some tips for minimizing stress during the busy holiday season:

• Do a mini meditation: Grab a moment while waiting in traffic or sitting at your desk to take several deep breaths. Repeat an affirmation such as “Keep letting go” or “I am strong.”

• Listen to music: For some, it’s Christmas music, and for others, it’s Mozart or Coldplay, but listening to just one song can give you an immune-system boost. (Heavy metal, according to studies, is the only genre of music that does not relieve stress.)

• Feel the burn: Keep a hand weight handy to do three minutes of lifts to produce stress-relieving endorphins.

• Socialize: Go to lunch or grab a coffee with someone you like at the office.

• Maintain an attitude of gratitude: Gratitude helps your mind focus on the big picture instead of getting caught up in minor details.

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