All of us have a "Currier and Ives" picture of what the holidays should be like. It's wonderful, it's warm, everyone is getting along, and many happy memories are being made. But the reality is that preparing for the holiday season becomes an added responsibility over our regular commitments. Our time gets crunched, our glowing image of the holidays gets thrown out the window, and we end up feeling stressed.
In the mid-1960s, psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe studied the correlation between the incidence of depression and major life events. Looking at what is now termed "The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale," Christmas actually makes the list of the most stressful life events.
But there are ways to prevent stress from ruining your holidays:
■ Keep your expectations reasonable. Don't try to do everything. Ask for help, delegate, or just scratch it off your list. Chances are that next year, no one will remember that you only put a wreath on the front door and not every window.
■ The goal is fun, not perfection. The cookies might burn, Aunt Jane might argue with Uncle Bob, but don't let that ruin the entire holiday.
■ Prioritize. Decide in advance what works for your nuclear family, what your budget is for the holidays, and what normal routines (like household chores) can be extended, delegated, or suspended altogether until the after the holidays. Then stick to it.
■ Plan, but be flexible. Try to organize just one major "time commitment" a day. You may want to wrap presents on Tuesday, but if you are supposed to bring cookies to that caroling party on Tuesday, move wrapping day to Wednesday or consider skipping the party altogether. Also be sure to build in downtime.
■ Don't feel compelled to keep traditions just because you've always done them. Reflect on what makes the holidays special for you, and give yourself permission to say "NO" to the traditions that are over (or under) whelming.
■ Maintain a normal routine as much as possible. Respect your need for sleep, rest, nourishment and exercise.
■ Moderate, moderate, moderate. It's easy to overeat or drink too much when we are stressed, but then we feel guilty or lethargic, which stresses us even more. If you're already experiencing the symptoms of stress — such as headaches, irritability, depression and feelings of being overwhelmed, the best medicine is to retreat and regroup. Stop what you're doing and take a break — turn on some Christmas carols or just take a brisk walk around the block. If you're not having fun, then you're missing out on the "Currier and Ives" moment.
Dr. Teresa Gevedon is Medical Director of the Psychiatry Clinic at the University of Kentucky