Most Americans are suffering from moderate to high stress according to the American Psychological Association. Such chronic stress doesn't simply dissipate during the holiday season, as the many songs and media images seem to portray. Rather, stress may be exacerbated during the holidays--especially for the 18% of adults and 25% of children and adolescents that, according to NIMH, already suffer from an anxiety disorder. Likewise, for those among us suffering from social anxiety, the many parties of the holiday season can be a source of distress rather than joy. For those already depressed (which, according to NIMH, almost 7% of adults are), the holidays can magnify sadness--and this may be especially true for those estranged from family and friends. The holidays can also amplify recent losses, such as divorce or death of a family member. Finally, even the happiest among us may be stressed by the pressure to purchase. Given the current economy, this source of angst may be at an all-time high; a recent survey found that 40% of Americans were stressed about holiday finances. The well-known song proclaiming "tis the season to be jolly" might be more accurate if it instead declared, "tis the season to be frazzled!"

Still, there are some things that you can do to put the fa-la-la-la-la back into this time of year:

Keep your expectations realistic. High expectations can be the first step on the road to a stressful holiday season. The notion that everything should be perfect during the holiday season is unrealistic. As aptly advised on the American Psychological Association (APA) website, "No Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, or other holiday celebration is perfect; view inevitable missteps as opportunities to demonstrate flexibility and resilience. A lopsided tree or a burned brisket won't ruin your holiday; rather, it will create a family memory." We tried to keep this in mind when, in the pouring rain right before our annual participation in the Thanksgiving Day Run-to-Feed-the-Hungry, my husband accidentally dropped the rental car keys down a storm drain. Hopefully, there will be joyful moments in your holiday season, but it is also prudent to fully anticipate the inevitable ups and downs.

Focus on presence not presents. Buying gifts can be a stressful task, emotionally and financially.

However, there are a couple of ways to ease this burden. First, remember that meaningful gifts--such as home-baked cookies or a coupon for an evening of babysitting--don't have to break the bank. Second, check your list and ask yourself if there are people for whom you could forego buying a gift. If so, be brave enough to approach the topic with these people. Perhaps ask a few friends if they would be open to putting a stop to the mutual gift exchanges. Most likely you will find that it eases their burden too. A good friendship all year long is truly the best gift; your presence in someone's life, through good and bad, is the best present of all.

 • Engage in self-care. The importance of self-care was the focus of one of my previous blogs, and this message holds especially true during the holiday season. As stated on the APA website, "There may be pressure to be everything to everyone" during this season. Likewise, people often try to stretch themselves too thin by attending everything they are invited to. It's okay to say no and choose fewer events to attend. Most important, self-care should be a part of everyone's routine all year, and it is especially important not to let it go during the holiday season. One form of self-care, exercise, has been proven to reduce stress. Often, the people who say they do not have time to exercise (all year and during the holiday season) are the ones who need it the most.

Stop Comparing and Seek Support. Stop comparing yourself to everyone around you. If it seems like everyone else is handling the season better than you, it may be because they are putting on a happy face. A good illustration of this is Facebook: People don't post pictures of themselves feeling sad and alone, but rather post ones in which they are happy and surrounded by friends. In other words, pictures don't lie--but they may tell only half the story. Find out the other half. Talk to people and you will likely find that they are stressed too. Just sharing thoughts and feelings with others can make you feel better.

Certainly, the tips above aren't the only ones to help reduce holiday stress. A google search on "holiday stress" turned up over 6 million results in .14 seconds. One of these was an excellent NPR story on holiday stress. A less serious find was the Huffington Post Holiday Stress Quotes. My personal favorite: For fast-acting relief try slowing down.

Tis the season to de-stress. Fa-la-la-la-la-la!!

About the Author

Laurie B. Mintz Ph.D.

Laurie Mintz, Ph.D, is a professor at the University of Florida, where she teaches the Psychology of Human Sexuality. She is a practicing licensed psychologist and the author of A Tired Woman’s Guide to Passionate Sex.

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