The holidays are a stressful time of year, but it doesn't have to be that way. Battling maddening crowds and buying gifts is part of the commercial tradition. Let's look at how to ditch excess holiday stress and enjoy this and other seasons of the year.

Buying Your Way to Happiness

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, winter solstice, and  New Years come once a year. Some look forward to these times. Others dread them. Many have mixed feelings. Can we take some stress away and find more time for joyful days?

The holidays are filled with prescriptions for happiness and joy, such as a joining family and old friends for fun times. The extra work that goes with the season is offset by the benefits of being with others and sharing the time. For others, rushing, too many responsibilities, and hassles seem to come like never-ending furies.

How you view the holidays makes a difference. Look forward to renewing old acquaintances, and holiday hassles are like bumps in a road. Believe that these days are too much to manage, and you are likely to experience what you believe. It's a matter of perspective.

Some holiday stresses are setups. This is a big commercial time of the year, and merchants (and their advertisers) are masters of suggestibility. You'll get barrages of subliminal messages subtly saying that what you buy will make you happy. A commercial shows a new car with a big red bow parked in a driveway surrounded by a gleeful family.  You and your child believe that you must have the latest "in" toy that the kids on TV have.

Talented advertising and marketing people can both create product "needs" and promote a fear of guilt over disappointing others if you don't buy. This manipulation works for merchants but can be economically hard on cash-strapped individuals and families. Don't buy the hype. An inner assertion, "I will not be manipulated by commercial images" means that you'll make the decisions whether you'll buy basic gifts, lavish gifts, or none-at-all.

There is more to the holiday stress saga. Since 2004 the American Psychological Association (APA) stress surveys indicate that as people head toward the holidays, money worries top the list.

Holidays don't last but money problems can. Over thirteen million people still carry debt from their last holiday buying binge. Three out of four people report moderate to high stress throughout the year.

Decide before the holidays what you can realistically afford to spend without creating debt. By taking this step, you are less likely to buy on impulse and give yourself rationalizations to justify added financial burdens.

Three Pillars to Make the Season Brighter

Let's look at three pillars for holiday cheer that apply throughout the year:

Pillar One: Take Care of Yourself

Plan and organize. Set meaningful and achievable holiday goals. Take small concrete steps to deal with holiday tasks. Reduce stress by shopping at off hours where you'll find more available parking and smaller crowds. Save time and Cybershop. Collect thoughtful gifts throughout the year. Your friend collects toy Ferris wheels. You find one at a flea market in July and tuck it away for the holidays. Follow-up on what you prioritize, and procrastination is moot.

Treat yourself well. Reduce your stress load by following a wellness program of getting adequate sleep, exercising, and eating healthy. Keep up an attractive appearance. Regularly engage in enjoyable and relaxing activities.

Avoid isolation. If you are alone and feel lonely, seek opportunities to connect with people. Eat out for breakfast, lunch, or dinner a few times a week. Make a point to briefly small-talk with your food server. Call acquaintances and ask how they are doing. Instead of sending holiday cards, write hand-written notes. Better yet, send a holiday email message. You are likely to get a quick response and that can start a dialogue.

Pillar Two: Strengthen your Emotional Life

Address obligatory perfectionism. If you think you are obliged to make your friends and family happy around the holidays, you've taken on an awesome responsibility. Instead of stressing yourself stretching for perfection, accept that doing well enough is preferable to trying to do everything perfectly. Put your defect detecting magnifying glass away. You'll have fewer reasons to feel stressed.

Prepare for seasonal funks. As the days shorten, a cloak of misery makes its melancholic decent for about ten-percent of adults living where snow follows fallen leaves; the rate is lower in sunnier areas. If you are a member of this group, educate yourself about the natural causes for this stress. Learn how seasonal mood changes trigger stress thinking. This knowledge sets the stage to defuse a double trouble, such as blaming others for your mood. That's an example of how to address the stress thinking  part of a seasonal mood problem. For the physical part, take a brisk 20 minute walk each noon starting around September. Continue the routine until April. The extra light and exercise can be a game changer.

Contest Parasitic Thinking. Parasitic thinking is stress thinking that draws time and energy with no good return. For example, you give yourself a dose of parasitic anxiety when you view yourself as powerless to cope with conditions that may not be as important as you first believe. To avoid sliding into to pit of pessimism, work to maintain a healthy perspective by keeping things in context. Think about your thinking. What powerless beliefs would hold up in Court? What wouldn't? Why?

Have backup plans. The fact that you take action to combat stress testifies that you have psychological competencies to put to work for yourself. But, from time to time, practically everyone lapses into old stress patterns. Expect it. You are less likely to feel surprised and likely to rebound sooner. Following a setback, go back to what worked before, or come up with a better way.

Pillar Three: Foster Family Strengths

Establish Healthy Routines. The Syracuse University 50 Year Study indicated that children are healthier when aspects of their behavior are regulated through predictable routines such as a regular bedtime, meals at a set time, and defined chores. Children with irregular routines had more irregular sleep patterns and more distress. In this case, what's healthy for the children is also healthy for you.

Communications Count. University of California professor, Rand Conger, found that unemployed cash-strapped parents who put family first, communicated with their sons and daughters about the reality of the families economic situation, and who maintained community ties, had kids that were not bothered by having less "stuff." Family security was more important than money.

Experiential Gifts to Remember. In a study on material and experiential purchases, Cornell University professors Travis Carter and Thomas Gilovich found that experiential purchases evoked greater happiness than material purchases. Experiential purchases include a family ski trip, hike, or visit to a desired place.

(c) Dr. Bill Knaus

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