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Holiday Stress Rx: Ten Tips

December is a stressful month, especially for women and despite all the holiday cheer.

Some of you might be thinking “But he’s Jewish–what does he know about Christmas stress?” Here are my credentials: I’ve been married for many years to a Christian woman and I’ve watched as she and our extended family become fried by the stress during every holiday season. Also, my patients tell me the holidays stress them, period.

Now it’s December, with three weeks of holiday crowds, buying things you wonder if anyone wants, maxing out your credit card, more cooking, and/or flying somewhere (airport crowds, security lines), living with relatives for a few days, and in many cases just waiting for old issues to surface yet again.

To complicate matters, as the stress volume in your life goes up, your serotonin stress buffer starts going down. For women living in the northern latitudes, it’s often dim outside–nights are long and you know it’s daytime only because the sky goes from dark to light gray. Without sunlight your serotonin plummets, you feel sluggish and can’t find motivation to exercise (another serotonin booster), and instead you start nibbling things (like carbs), glancing at your bathroom scale with dread.

Here’s a 10-part prescription for managing holiday stress:

1. Since there are actually some sunny days in December, make a point on those days to go outside for a brisk walk without sunglasses. To make serotonin, sun needs to get to your brain, which it does through your eyes. A brisk walk on a cold day (even without the sun) is a superb calorie-burner and serotonin-booster combined.
2. December is not a month to start a diet. Keep portion control in mind, and instead of having mountains of cookies lying about, have fresh fruit, raw veggies, and nuts instead.
3. Shop by mail and internet to avoid holiday crowds and traffic.
4. Better yet, agree that you and your family will make gifts for each other and for friends. Maybe banana bread, beautifully packaged.
5. Make a plan of action if you’re expecting visiting relatives. A morning walk, meditation, or yoga session will prepare you for the day.
6. Master saying the word “No” and its variations, like “So sorry but I can’t.” You’re not a bad Christmas spirit if you decline to host a big event or feed a dozen people. Try not to overschedule by accepting every invitation.
7. Don’t get overwhelmed by your to-do list. In fact, if you ruthlessly trim it you’ll have more time for a daily workout and some quiet time.
8. Get rid of the guilt trip that you’re not doing enough. Share responsibilities. If you’re having a get-together, ask guests to contribute a snack, dessert, or part of the meal. They’ll enjoy it even more.
9. Simplify everything: minimal decorations, less travel, fewer gifts, less elaborate meals.
10. Let go of unrealistic expectations. Norman Rockwell-type families, if not completely fictional, are rare. If your brother is a general jerk, the family Christmas gathering isn’t going to change him into a human being.

Expect post-Christmas blahs. To combat them, see item 1, breathe deeply, and head outside.

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