TROY counselor says holidays don’t have to be stressful

Posted: Wednesday, 19 December 2007

TROY — The holiday season may be “the most wonderful time of the year,” as the song says, but it can also be the most stressful, according to a Troy University counselor.

Fran Scheel, coordinator of the University’s SAVE project, said recognizing that stress and anxiety are as prevalent during the holidays as fruitcake and egg nog is the first step to celebrating, and not just surviving, the season.

“The holiday season is always stressful, for many reasons,” she said. “There are plenty of extra chores, such as shopping, decorating and cooking, that have to be done, so our calendars are filled.”

Scheel said unrealistic expectations and financial obligations also fuel holiday stress.

“Sometimes we get so wrapped up in making sure Christmas is just like the scene on the picture postcards that small disappointments become major ones,” Scheel said. “Also, trying to find that perfect gift adds to the problem when you either can’t find it or can’t afford it.”

Getting together with family can also be stressful, she added, particularly if two or more members are feuding. Adding to the mix, she said, is the natural tendency to become “blue” during the winter months because the days are shorter and colder.

“Researchers call it Season Affective Disorder, which is more serious than simply getting stressed out over the holidays; it’s a subtype of a major depression episode,” Scheel said. “Symptoms include increased sleep to the point where it’s almost impossible to get out of bed, and overeating sweets and carbohydrates.”

Scheel adds that not everyone who gets sad during the season has this disorder, but failure to cope with holiday-related anxiety can contribute to depression. She offers the following tips for dealing with seasonal stress:

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  • Set reasonable expectations. “Make sure you plan properly so you know what you can do and what you can’t do,” she said. “If you’re overwhelmed, this might be the year to buy your cakes from the supermarket rather than try to bake six homemade cakes for company.”
  • Do “healthy things,” such as get proper rest, watch your diet, particularly at holiday buffets and parties, and get plenty of exercise.
  • Recognize that there is no such thing as a “perfect” holiday. “Things are going to go wrong, and you can’t please everybody,” she said. “The perfect example of this is the decision about which side of the family to visit or invite for the holidays. You can get caught up in following traditions to the point that you actually hurt your chance to enjoy the holidays. Life changes, so do traditions.”

  • Budget wisely and don’t try to “buy” the perfect Christmas. “Building up credit-card debt can ruin a holiday,” she said.
  • Keep priorities straight. “Understand what’s important about the holiday season and don’t let stress overshadow the reason for celebrating in the first place,” she said.
  • Beware post-holiday blues. “Many people get depressed after the holidays because their to-do list is complete and a sense of boredom or feelings of emptiness may manifest,” she said. “That’s the perfect time to do some community volunteer work or work on a hobby or home project. This will give you a sense of purpose.”