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Lessons for Life

How to reduce holiday stress

Expert tips on how to navigate the stress of the holidays

Jen Weigel

December 3, 2013

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The holidays are supposed to serve up plenty of laughter and joy, but for many, it's a stress-filled pressure cooker with a side of chaos.

"We take every holiday and pour all our energies and efforts (into it), as if that's the only happy day or only holiday of the year," said Dr. Prakash Masand, president of Global Medical Education. "Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that this is just one day of the year and it doesn't define your life, and it doesn't define your year."

Masand, who is the former consulting professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center, said one major cause of stress during the holidays is putting everyone else's needs ahead of your own, causing exhaustion and resentment.

"We all think the holidays are just about spending time with others, doing things for others, entertaining family friends and being social," Prakash said. "But if we put ourselves in the equation, we can still feel connected to our friends and loved ones without being overwhelmed."

Here are Dr. Prakash's tips for reducing holiday stress:

Take time to be alone.

"Each one of us has something that we personally find soothing," he said. "For some it's taking the dog for a walk, for others it's going to get a facial or a massage. Maybe it's grabbing lunch. Taking time to do something away from the family and your friends just gives us a chance to recuperate and regenerate and get your energies and thoughts back to where they need to be."

Don't procrastinate.

"We need to recognize in ourselves what are our strengths and what are our weaknesses, and make a small effort each year to do it better. So if you are known to wait until the last minute for shopping, take two weeks to shop instead of one."

Masand said to utilize technology for our holiday to-do lists.

"Some people like keeping a written list, some like keeping a spread sheet, and some set alerts on their phone, so whatever your preference, this will allow you to rank in order all you have to do from the most important to the least important."

Expect things to go wrong.

"It's more likely than not that you will be faced with some sort of criticism or hostility toward someone or you will attend some event when something didn't go quite right," he said. "I think we've got to remind ourselves that this is just one of hundreds of holidays you're going to be celebrating with these people. Focus on what went well and all the fun that you had and try to minimize what went wrong."

Set a budget.

"We all have a lot of wants and we often confuse them with needs," he said. "You don't need to go overboard. Put a certain amount aside for gifts and a certain amount for activities or eating out. Creating these buckets and a budget can really go a long way. Otherwise, you charge it to the credit card and when you get the bill, you think, 'What have I done?'"

Don't bring up old wounds.

"We often think the holidays are an occasion to resolve a family conflict that has not been resolved for 100 years and that's never going to happen over a 30 minute cocktail or a two hour dinner," he said. "You will not make progress by bringing up conflicts in a setting that's not conducive for resolution. If something is bothering you, pick a private time to discuss it without an audience."

Listen to your body.

Masand said we treat our cars better than we treat our bodies.

"Our cars get servicing every three months — we check the tire pressure, if there's a small dent we obsess about it and go and get it fixed — but we never do that for our bodies. We wait for it to break down before we go to the doctor.

"And people sometimes forget that alcoholic beverages are not a substitute for water. For each glass of alcohol you drink, you should remind yourself to have one glass of water. This is one of the leading causes of hangovers and all kinds of health problems."

Don't self diagnose when it comes to medications.

"The holidays are one of the worst times to get off medicines because they are stressful times," he said. "Studies have shown that when you get off medicines during stressful times, your risk of relapse and recurrence increases dramatically. Going off your medication is a decision that should be left up to your doctors."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel