Last updated: Nov 23, 2009
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Lets face it. Some holiday-related stress is to be expected. Turkeys will be burned. Flights will be canceled. You probably wont be the one to nab that $50 flat-screen TV on Black Friday, even if you get up really, really early.


When Lori Kimble was a girl, a snowstorm knocked out the power at her grandparents' house just as the holiday feast was due to hit the oven. “We ended up having to roast the turkey in the fireplace and use a camping stove to cook the rest,” says Kimble. “We ate by candlelight too.”

Heartwarming? Or holiday horror story? The thing is, you get to decide. Stress happens, but how you react to it determines how the holiday will be remembered.

Holiday stress does hit some people harder than others. For example, women are more likely than men to report additional stress during the holidays, and they are less likely to take the time needed to deal with stress in healthy ways, according to a 2006 study from the American Psychological Association (APA).

“The more we have ongoing and chronic stress, the more that can lead to physical ailments and concerns,” says Angela Londoño-McConnell, PhD, a psychologist and the president at AK Counseling & Consulting, in Athens, Ga.

So how can you become one of those people who chuckles at adversity—silly snowstorm!—instead of crying into your eggnog? Here are nine signs you could be headed for a holiday meltdown, and how to stop the implosion before it happens.

1. You have super-high expectations.
If you tend to feel stress year-round because youre not meeting the expectations youve set for yourself, the holidays are likely to amplify these feelings.

“We have high expectations to have the Martha Stewart holiday, but [what if] were not good at baking, or our family just doesnt get along?” says Stephanie S. Smith, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Front Range Psychological Associates, in Erie, Colo. Sometimes expectations are so unrealistic they simply cant be fulfilled, she says.

What you should do: Focus on what is realistic—not ideal—or you risk facing major disappointment when things dont go as planned. Perfectionists must remember that preparing for a holiday is not a one-person task; reaching out to a support system to delegate tasks can really lighten the load.

Now would also be the time to crank up your sense of humor and keep it on full blast until January.

2. You tend to overbook.
Chances are, the holiday invitations are hitting your inbox and mailbox. Between the office party, neighbors' open house, family obligations, and one-day sales, you can be stretched—too thin.

Packing your calendar with obligations means sacrificing time usually spent on other activities. Sleep and exercise—important stress relievers—could be the first to go.

What you should do: Get ready to say no to some things. Start to prioritize chores, decline some invitations, and schedule time to do holiday activities you enjoy, instead of just those you feel you have to do.


3. You have family friction.
If you have overbearing parents or passive-aggressive siblings, the holidays can amplify trouble in already strained relationships. Tension can escalate, especially if you are spending longer periods of time with family than you are used to or staying with or hosting family members.

What you should do: The best thing you can do? Manage your expectations.

“If you have a strained relationship the other 11 months of the year, youre probably going to be disappointed if you have the expectation of having a loving, cozy holiday,” says Smith. “Dont expect things in reality that are out of the realm of possibility.”

Be sure to take time for yourself, even if you are hosting visitors. “You want to spend time with [out-of-town family], but that doesnt mean you cant go out for your walk every morning, or have coffee by yourself,” says Smith. "We should still allow ourselves to do the things we typically do to make ourselves feel good or get us through the day."

4. You cut back on sleep to get everything done.
Youre up at the crack of dawn to rush to the best sales and then stay up late to wrap gifts or clink glasses at parties. But the holidays shouldnt mean kissing your good nights sleep good-bye.

Skimping on sleep can leave you grumpy and stressed, throw off your diet, and increase your risk of colds, depression, and car accidents. Traveling across time zones or sleeping in a bed that isnt your own can also throw off your normal sleep routine. Read more about how the holidays can affect your sleep.

What you should do: Make a good nights sleep a priority.

“At some point I think that we just need to realize that there is only so much of us to go around,” says Londoño-McConnell, “and we need to make some decisions about how it is that we really want to spend our time.”

5. You tend to drink more when stressed.
Sometimes a glass of red wine is the perfect antidote to a long, stressful day. It also may have some health benefits: A daily serving of alcohol may improve your memory or protect your heart.

But excessive drinking can spell trouble, making you more susceptible to colds and the flu, as well as increasing the risk of breast cancer, uterine cancer, and osteoporosis in the long term. Unfortunately, 14% of people say they drink more to cope with holiday stress.

Because alcohol is a depressant, overindulging could make you more emotional, leaving you more open to a major meltdown.

What you should do: Experts recommended limiting your alcohol intake to one or two drinks a day. Sure, that can be tough when faced with a mandatory office party, but if you cant stick to your limit, do yourself a favor by ducking out of the party early.

6. Your clothes are feeling tight­—already.
Before you know it, the leftover turkey sandwiches, Christmas sugar cookies, and afterwork cocktails can really add up. Studies have shown that many people gain a couple of pounds over the holidays and have trouble losing them later.

The weight gain could be part of a vicious cycle: Holiday eating is stressing you out and the holiday stress is making you eat. “People tend to eat more, or not eat as well when theyre stressed,” says Londoño-McConnell.

What you should do: Instead of packing on the pounds, enjoy holiday meals guilt-free by planning ahead for the splurge. That way you can indulge smartly without derailing your diet.



7. Youre strapped for cash.
Lets face it—2009 wasnt nice to a lot of people. If a change in your work life or finances is a dark cloud hanging on the holiday horizon, youre not alone.

Even before the economy bottomed out, Americans said financial pressures caused holiday stress. In a 2006 APA survey, 61% of respondents listed lack of money as the top cause of holiday stress, followed closely by the pressures of gift giving at 42%. Credit card debt also ranked highly, at 23%.

While more recent data isnt yet available, experts assume that financial pressures are even higher today. “Given the economy, money is still an issue,” says Londoño-McConnell. “Typically, it is already a stressor, so its probably going to continue.”

What you should do: Although its tough, now is the time of year to ask for help if you need it. From meals to toys for your kids, religious groups and other charitable organizations are there to help you.

If you were lucky enough to make it to the end of 2009 without needing a helping hand, then offer one to others.

“I think in this financial crisis, most of us have taken stock of what really matters,” says Londoño-McConnell. “Its forcing us in some ways to get back to basics, and that might actually not be so bad.” Check out creative savings tips.

8. Youre struggling with depression or another health problem.
The holidays can be particularly trying for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, as well as for people who have lost close friends and family members.

Feeling depressed at this time of year “can be particularly hard because were expected to be happy,” Smith says. “You can feel more depressed because you feel like youre out of the loop.” But these feelings are legitimate, and the holidays are no reason to put mental health on the back burner.

What you should do: Being open and honest about these emotions ahead of time will take some of the pressure off of staying cheery on the big day. If youve lost someone recently or are depressed due to financial problems, talk with family members before the holidays and decide which traditions you want to keep and which may be too painful or expensive to continue.

9. Youre married to tradition.
Traditions are one of the sweetest parts of the holidays. You always eat your Thanksgiving turkey fried with a side of cranberry. You always spend Christmas in Biloxi. But, sorry—times change. You lost your job this year. Or your new husband, a vegetarian, says if hes not in Houston, its not a holiday. Now what?

What you should do: Treasure your traditions, but be open to new ones. Sometimes the holidays dont look exactly as we remember them or how we think they should look—or taste.

Take a look at how your life has changed in the past year, either financially or in terms of your relationships. Be flexible and willing to compromise—holidays are about more than what you eat and where you eat it, or about a gifts price point.

Better to break the traditions, not the relationships. Keep your eye on what really matters—thankfulness, giving, sharing, and caring.