If you feel stressed these days, join the crowd.
The vast majority of Americans surveyed in recent years say the ho, ho, ho of the holidays often gets up and goes.
More time demands, spending worries and commercialism make it so. Busy work schedules with more time off, changes in family dynamics and remembrances of lost loved ones often add to the burden.
"The holidays tend to be a time of excess," said Kelly Hahl, health and wellness manager with BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York. "There are so many obligations and it's really hard for people to say no, cut back on things and focus on the things that are most important to them."
Stress is the way the body reacts to demands. It can be fleeting, or linger. Left unaddressed, it can cause physical and mental health challenges.
“During the holiday season, it’s important to tune into your body’s needs and respond when something feels off,” Hahl said. “By finding ways to incorporate activities that help keep your stress levels low, you’ll spend the season making memories instead of feeling overwhelmed.”
Here are several suggestions to lighten your burdens and bring more meaning to the coming weeks.
[RELATED: Hear a podcast with Kelly Hahl here]
"If you're not organized and on top of your tasks, that can definitely add to the stress," said Hahl, the mother of two children, Nathan, 9, and Erin, 6. She and her husband, Jason, set plans that will include a family brunch with Santa, drive to see the lights at Fisher-Price in East Aurora, and a school concert. "My son is in orchestra," Hahl said. "I wouldn't miss his concert for the world, all those squeaky cellos and violins. Some of the things I say no to are the work get-togethers, happy hours and dinners which are great but are too tough for me to do after work."
Keep meaningful traditions
A nighttime visit to see the holiday displays at Fisher-Price has become a tradition for the Hahl family. The toymaker is close to the house and it's free to park and walk around the property. "You can look through the eyes of your children and see what's special around the holidays," Hahl said.
Burdensome traditions are another story. "Families change," Hahl said. One example: gift exchanges that grow cumbersome as extended family size grows. One way to simplify the process: pick an organization, cause or family that could use some help during the holidays. Hahl knows a family that did so. "It eliminated so many gifts they were buying for each other – and all the stress that went along with that. It also brought them so much happiness to do something for somebody else, and focus on the meaning of this season: giving, compassion and love."
Make health a priority
Eat, sleep and move right during the holidays. "There are so many additional opportunities to indulge in food and drink, so it's important to keep your health goals top of mind," Hahl said. She suggested scheduling time in your calendar for exercise, grocery shopping and meal planning.
"Exercise is a really great stress-reliever," Hahl said. "It doesn't have to be yoga and you don't have to belong to a gym. Going for a walk is great exercise and it can help clear your mind." It also can help burn off extra calories you consume, while building strength and endurance.
Food and drink matters
"People should focus on making sure they're drinking enough water – even if it's between alcoholic drinks," Hahl said. If you're going to drink, don't drive, and consider light beer, or club soda and sparkling water as mixers instead than juices or sodas.
Fat- and sugar-laden foods, as well as alcohol, often are used to provide comfort from the stress of the holidays. In abundance, they can have the opposite effect, making us sluggish, depressed or angry.
"You've got to be careful with alcohol and with 'stress eating,'" Hahl said. "Find something else you enjoy." Read a book, host a game night, play cards, break out the family photo albums.
Set a budget and stick to it
Comparison online shopping on Google and Amazon can help you save money and time in shopping lines, Hahl said. It's also important to set a spending limit for each person and overall. "A lot of times we do get caught up in buying things for people, then January rolls around and we have buyer's remorse." Often, "the best gift is something that doesn't come in a box," she said. Take someone to the movies, the zoo or out for a healthy meal – "something that's not adding to the clutter."
Take time for yourself
"For a lot of people, when they're feet hit the ground they're on the go all day," Hahl said. "Not only is it exhausting, it's stressful, taxing and can make you sick. Take even 15 minutes to meditate or sit in peaceful quiet. It doesn't have to be in the morning but a lot of people do it then to set the tone for the day." Give yourself a pep talk, silently or aloud, in whatever mantra you choose. "It can be a renewing experience."
Also prepare to politely decline invitations to events you know will add to your stress level. Your "decline script" could be something like, “That sounds like a wonderful opportunity. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to attend. I’m sure it will come off beautifully,” said Dr. Tim Thayne, a marriage and family therapist and author of "Not by Chance: How parents boost their teen’s success in and after treatment."
Have realistic expectations
"No Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or other holiday celebration is perfect," the American Psychological Association points out on its website. "View inevitable missteps as opportunities to exercise your flexibility and resilience. A lopsided tree or a burned brisket won’t ruin your holiday – it will create a family memory. If your children’s wish list is outside your budget, talk to them about realistic expectations and remind them that the holidays aren't about expensive gifts."
Set aside differences
Do your best to accept family members and friends as they are, officials with the Mayo Clinic recommended. "Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress, too."
WHEN HELP IS WARRANTED
A lot of people dread the holidays but it may be time to talk with someone – perhaps a professional – if persistent stress causes a lack of sleep, changes in appetite or relationships, or feelings of irritability or hopelessness.
The holidays are an important time of year to take note of whether loved ones are struggling, Hahs said. Kelly Hahl, health and wellness manager with BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York.
"I think it's important to be open and honest with that person and say, 'Hey, I love you, I can tell that something's really bothering you right now and I want to help you,'" Hahl said. "I think sometimes people need that invitation to share that burden, so that they can feel comfortable opening up."
Persistent or dramatic change – whether because of challenging circumstances or not – may signal the need to talk with a pastor or counselor, or attend a support group.
The Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition recommends the following for those concerned about a loved one who may be exhibiting signs of mental illness – and also points out that those with addictions to alcohol and other drugs may have a co-existing mental health challenge:
211wny.org (or call 211): This confidential website and phone number are available at all times and will connect those in all Western New York counties to appropriate health and human service agencies, including those for mental health support.
letstalkstigma.org: This website focuses on starting a conversation about mental health and connecting individuals and families to those who can help. It includes crisis service hotlines for several counties in the region.
justtellone.org: This website is designed to help those in the region ages 14 to 26 who are struggling with mental illness, alcohol or substance abuse, or thoughts about suicide. Its "Give Help" section includes videos that can guide parents and friends in ways to help loved ones who are struggling.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911
Holiday healing service: Meditative service with prayer for those grieving the loss of a loved one, relationship or job, struggling with a health condition or looking for a lift for any reason, 4 p.m. today, Calvary Episcopal Church, 20 Milton St., at South Cayuga Street, Williamsville. The church hall is handicapped-accessible off the church parking lot. All are welcome.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon