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Psychologists say a majority of Americans are stressed about at least one aspect of the holidays.

How not to lose your mind during the holidays

The “happy” holiday season can actually bring all kinds of stresses and frustrations. But don’t worry – help is at hand.

December 19, 2017

By Mark Cox

Here’s something you may not know about the festive season – it’s the busiest time of the year for counselors and therapists.

Psychologists say a majority of Americans are stressed about at least one aspect of the holidays. But if your own excitement is tinged with a little dread, rest easy. Our helpful seasonal guide identifies the main holiday stress factors – and suggests some coping strategies.

1. Spending time with family.

While we all dream of a family holiday resembling the final scene from It’s a Wonderful Life, the reality is often less harmonious. The traditional gathering of extended family members can sometimes feel like a powder keg just waiting for a spark.

Fear not: Randi Smith, professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver, has some advice. “First, it’s a very good idea to plan ahead,” she said. “So think about how you might, for example, set limits with those family members who always want you to watch the kids or do all the cooking. And develop a potential exit strategy in case you need it. For instance, if things get tense, can you excuse yourself to go visit an old friend or to walk the family dog? A good escape plan can be a life-saver.”

2. Turning into a child again.

Here’s the thing: You’re a successful adult – mature, well-liked and a totally together person. Then you step into your parents’ house and the clock rolls right back. Dad says stupid things, mom won’t stop fussing and your sibling still knows exactly how to push your buttons. Within an hour, long-dormant triggers you didn’t even know still existed have kicked in and the bickering starts.

“Most of us have been here ... because nobody can drive you crazy like your own family,” said Smith. The trick is to devise topics and opportunities for distraction. For example, a game of Apples to Apples is much less likely to be toxic than talking politics. In fact, just stay off politics altogether! And also avoid too much alcohol, which will sabotage all the best-laid plans.”

Buying nice things for people is meant to be a gesture, not a test. Randi Smith, professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver, says don't overthink it.

3. Shopping for gifts.

“When should I go to the shops? Is it going to be super crowded again? What should I get? Who for? Just for him, or her as well? How much should I spend? What did they spend on me last year? Will they like what I’ve bought? Is that really their kind of thing? Should I include a gift receipt? What if they hate it?

Rarely has a custom designed to promote happiness caused such misery. Here’s the thing to remember: Buying nice things for people is meant to be a gesture, not a test. Don’t overthink it.

4. Feeling pressure to have “fun.”

Everything around you at this time of year – the parties, gifts, decorations – screams out fun, fun, FUN! And all those beaming, photogenic families in the TV commercials make having a great time seem so effortless. But that’s only because none of them have to contend with underdone turkey, grid-locked traffic and cranky Uncle Ted talking about politics over dinner.

While most of us understand real life isn’t like a glossy TV ad, research shows many people build unrealistic expectations of having a “perfect” time – which is asking for disappointment. Luckily, professor Smith has a good idea for staying grounded: “Put your focus on brightening someone else’s holiday and it may actually brighten your own,” she said. “It’s a sad paradox that the more we try to construct our own perfect times, the more elusive happiness may seem. Whereas when we do good things for others, we reap rewards in the form of positive feelings for ourselves.”

If the holidays make you sad, Randi Smith, professor of psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver, suggests staying off social media.

5. Feeling lonely.

The holidays are not happy for everyone. Some might especially feel the absence of loved ones or the unhappiness of their own situation. And being surrounded by so much festive cheer and others’ contented relationships can rub salt in the wound.

But if the holidays do make you sad, Smith advises one thing you can do to ease the pain: Stay off social media: “Facebook’s cruel deception – and it is a deception – is that everyone else is having a great time; everyone else is happy; no one else is lonely,” she said. “If you’re already feeling a little fragile, that’s the last thing you need to see.”

6. Spending (too much) money. 

‘Tis the season for financial folly … Business experts say almost a quarter of Americans overspent during last year’s holidays, and 14 percent still haven't paid off credit card debt. The really ga-ga part? Many of those shoppers plan to spend the same amount this year. Where does such spending madness come from?

Basically, the festive season hits consumers as a double whammy – combining major expense with considerable social pressure to join in. Parents especially, faced with demanding kids and a gift-buying “arms race” with other competitive moms and dads, can easily start hemorrhaging dollars. To avoid this, follow professor Smith’s three-point plan: “Make a realistic budget and stick to it. Keep an eye open for good sales and deals. And if you do incur a little debt, devise a plan to pay it off as quickly as possible.”

7. Travel, travel, travel …

Last year, 103 million determined Americans hit the roads, rail-tracks and skies over the holiday period. Festive travel can be a special kind of agony. Whichever option you choose, there will be crowds, delays, cancellations or gridlock waiting for you. (Many regular seasonal travelers probably think the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” is actually a documentary.) And the only stress-busting solution? Stay home. Because sadly, unless someone invents a teleportation device in the next week or so, there is no magical answer to this one. You’ll just have to grin and bear it like the rest of us.

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