It’s the most wonderful time of the year, darn it! And if you’re not bursting with joy at the prospect of all the decorating, baking, gift-buying, card-sending and party-going packed into the next couple of weeks, then there must be something wrong with you.

Not really. In fact, many people find the holidays the most stressful time of the year. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

“Some of the biggest stressors during this time are our high expectations, demands on our time and finances, as well as recent losses,” says Laurie Chappell, St. Luke’s Hospital education coordinator. “If someone is experiencing a significant loss, whether it’s the death of someone close to us, a job loss, a divorce or something else, we need to realize it’s okay to be sad during this time. We can’t make ourselves be happy all of the time just because it’s the holidays.”

Stephanie Capparelli, a licensed professional counselor and certified bariatric counselor with SSM Weight Loss Institute, agrees. “The actual stress is not so much the activities, per se; it’s the demands we place on ourselves to complete all of these chores, go to all of these parties, stretch our finances beyond our means and often take on much more than we are capable due to a feeling of obligation or responsibility.”

So what are the alternatives? Experts recommend starting by simply shifting our expectations. “Things don’t have to be perfect,” Capparelli says. “Some parties can be skipped, not all gifts need to be purchased, and everyone’s favorite pie doesn’t need to be made. Find new ways to celebrate that will work to reduce stress instead of create it.”

Edith Varley, principal of The Varley Group Inc, a business and organizational consulting firm, notes that unmet expectations are the root of all conflict. In order to change unrealistic and unhealthy expectations, a mental shift is needed involving reflection on how we can change our circumstances to invest our time and resources in the people and activities we love most.

“Maybe this holiday you decide that instead of giving gifts to each other, you’ll provide a gift to a family in need, or you volunteer as a family for some cause worthy of your time,” Varley says. “You create a new tradition, stop running and being worn out, and turn the holiday into a holy day in your family life.”

Chappell agrees and adds that stress is more manageable when we prioritize healthy habits, continuing to eat well, exercise regularly and get enough rest. She also recommends taking at least five minutes each day to be quiet and simply reflect, pray or meditate. Slow, deep breathing is a particularly powerful stress management tool, she adds.

Varley notes that parents monitor many of these healthy behaviors for their children: nutrition, rest, and appropriate media use and friends. Take the same care of yourself, she advises.

“The biggest tip is to be aware,” Chappell says. “Be aware of what the holidays mean to you and act accordingly. Be aware of your stressors and then take some action to diminish them even if you cannot eliminate stress.”

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