THE BLOG

Destressing the Holidays: Making a List, Checking It Twice

12/24/2012 03:55 pm ET | Updated Feb 23, 2013

MAUI, HAWAII -- Aloha from Hawaii. Given the amazing beauty here, it's no surprise that, according to a Gallup poll last year, Hawaii residents were the least stressed in the entire country (Utah, for reasons unknown, was the most frazzled. So I'm in the least stressed state during the most stressful time of the year: the holidays. A survey by Consumer Reports found that 90 percent of Americans find at least one thing stressful about the holiday season. Who are these 10 percent who feel no holiday stress?).

Stress, what it does to us and how to best manage it, has been a long-time obsession of HuffPost (and of mine). And just because I'm in the least stressed state doesn't mean I've stopped thinking about it -- in fact, this is the perfect place to put things in perspective. The time to consider what stresses you out and adopt some techniques to mitigate the effects of stress is not when you're in full freakout mode. Of course, stress isn't limited to the holidays -- it's just that this is the time when we stress out to different background music and least expect it.

Why does a season that's supposed to be about happiness and joy so often result in just the opposite? In the journal of the American Heart Association, Circulation, Dr. Robert Kloner dubbed the cardiac problems of this time of year the "Merry Christmas Coronary" and the "Happy New Year Heart Attack." Of course, it's possible that just having such expectations of the season to begin with, and then feeling the guilt at not meeting them, might be part of the problem. But whatever the reason, stress is what a lot of people will be unwrapping this year. Fortunately, much of it is returnable.

So what follows are tips not only for holiday stress, but for the rest of the year as well -- since stress in our lives is about as daily an occurrence as balmy weather is here in Hawaii. So if you're in that 90 percent who's stressed out this week and next, this might be the list you should be checking twice -- courtesy of the folks at the Mayo Clinic. Among their tips:

  • Acknowledge your feelings.
  • Reach out -- volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.
  • Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do.

At HuffPost, Healthy Living senior editor Laura Schocker put together "8 Seasonal Ways To Chill Out." Among them:

  • Stroll Through A Christmas Tree Farm (Or Fake It)
  • Cutting down your own Christmas tree can be a bonding family activity -- and it might have some stress busting benefits, as well. According to Health.com, the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or "taking in the atmosphere of the forest," has been shown to successfully reduce stress.
  • Cue Up The Christmas Carols... A 2009 Cochrane Systematic Review found that, among heart patients, listening to music can decrease blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety levels.
  • Give A Gift: According to 2008 research from the University of British Columbia and the Harvard Business School, people report greater happiness when they spend money on gifts for others or on charitable donations than they do when they spend that cash on themselves.

Of course, for many of us, the best part of the holiday season -- as well as the most stressful -- revolves around food, which is so often the focal point of the holiday experience. Chef Giada de Laurentiis offers some pointers on avoiding a heaping helping of meal-related stress:

  • Write down the full menu, including everything from the main course to specialty drinks and dessert. To set yourself up for success, plan your menu around a single star item and add a cast of supporting characters that are easy to make or can be prepped ahead of time.

    Include one menu item that requires last-minute prep. It brings everyone to the kitchen and sets the tone for a fun dinner party.

I especially like that one, since everybody not only likes to congregate in the kitchen but also to feel useful.

And, Chef Giada adds, "if something doesn't turn out exactly as planned, don't worry about it, it will make a great holiday story for next year."

Food Network host Ted Allen's holiday meal tips include:

  • Consider a potluck.
  • Cook what you feel comfortable with.
  • Decorate with natural things. There is nothing more beautiful (and stress free!) than decorating with food. For example, a bowl of lemons, artichokes or apples adds pops of color to your kitchen or dining area.

And then there's the cleanup, for which you can check out HuffPost's "Holiday Cleaning Checklist." (Who knew potato skins could be used to remove mineral stains on your glassware?)

Travel is the other huge holiday stressor. Especially because it seems the entire country is also traveling, and on your plane to boot. But among the "14 Things Not To Worry About When Traveling" are:

  • Your email inbox.
  • Keeping in touch: Send an old-fashioned post card or carry a tiny Moleskine notebook around to jot down your thoughts while you're away. It'll make your stories that much more enjoyable for your loved ones when you return.

Fly.com, in its "Air Travel Survival Guide for the Holidays," suggests that you "ship luggage ahead of time." You'll lessen the chances it will get lost and won't have pre-boarding-overhead-bin-stress.

Family can always be a source of stress, but it can be especially hard for those juggling stepchildren and being the newcomer to long-established traditions. Ann Blumenthal Jacobs, author of Love For Grown-Ups, a guide for women who married late in life, offers the following suggestions:

  • If children are involved in your holiday plans, work that out first.
  • Schedule nothing at all for one day or one weekend over the holidays -- something magical can always happen when you and your family are spontaneous.
  • See people who make you happy.

Others will be celebrating their first holiday season since a divorce. Among the tips for "How To Help Your Kids Survive Their First Holiday Season With Divorced Parents" are:

  • Don't make them feel guilty about being with the other parent.
  • Spend time with family and friends even if it isn't on the specific holiday date.
  • Start new traditions.

Then there are those who will be experiencing their first holiday since losing a loved one. "The absence of a loved one is noted and highlighted by what is supposed to be a time of celebration," says psychologist Dr. Velleda Ceccoli. Her tips for how to navigate this difficult time include:

  • Be Direct: If you're not in the holiday spirit, that's okay. It's important to communicate those thoughts directly, so others know what they can expect from you.
  • Let Someone In. "It's harder to keep [grief] in than sharing it," says grief counselor Rob Zucker.
  • Give Back: Find a way to volunteer your time this year, whether at a shelter, soup kitchen or children's hospital.

One element common to many of these lists is my long-term obsession: sleep. We don't get enough of it even in times that aren't particularly stressful, and we're quick to sacrifice it in times that are, even though it's one of the most important tools to combat stress. There are, of course, many obstacles that prevent us from getting the sleep we need, but one that's increasingly troublesome is our growing reliance on gadgets and screens. Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that a few hours of light from computer and tablet screens can lower our levels of melatonin, which helps regulate our sleep cycle, by over 20 percent. These lowered melatonin levels can also put us at risk for diabetes and obesity and other health problems. And yet, according to the National Sleep Foundation, over 90 percent of Americans are staring at a screen of some sort in the hour before going to bed.

Scientists are learning that our addiction to email doesn't just take its toll on our sleeping hours. According to Linda Stone, a former researcher at Microsoft, when people read their email, their breathing actually changes. She calls it "email apnea," which she describes as a "temporary absence or suspension of breathing, or shallow breathing, while doing email." And 80 percent of us suffer from it. This can have serious consequences, since suspending your breath interferes with your body's balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitric oxide, which helps fight infections. Another recent study at the University of California, Irvine found that stress levels went down when participants weren't allowed to check their email and that stress levels went up when there was a high volume of email.

Of course, the main purpose of the holidays is to connect with those we love. But with gadget-centric, hyper-connected lives, we often find ourselves connected to everyone and yet to no one -- so open to the entire world that we're closed off to those who mean the most to us.

"As much as we all love and depend on our high-tech toys," writes Common Sense Media editor Caroline Knorr, "our reliance on them -- let's face it -- can get in the way of the warm and cozy family time we so carefully scheduled." Among her tips for dialing down the digital in your family's life are:

  • Be jolly -- but firm. Explain to your kids that you want to downsize -- not demolish -- your family's reliance on technology over the holidays.
  • Make a list. Schedule some daily tech time for yourself and your kids. Get their input on which devices they absolutely can't live without, and allow some limited use.
  • Try some tech togetherness. Unplugging for its own sake isn't the point. Family time is. Plan a night of video games, movies or maybe preselected YouTube videos that you can all enjoy together.

Lots of people will be breaking their diets during the holiday season and then making guilt-fueled resolutions come the new year. But how about a digital diet, which might be nearly as important to our health and well-being as a food diet. As HuffPost's Executive Lifestyle Editor Lori Leibovich found out, it's not easy, but the results can be very rewarding. In preparation for a week-long family vacation in Maine, she announced to her kids: "If you see me doing anything on my iPhone besides taking pictures, take it away from me." She writes that her children were "thrilled" to be the enforcers for a change, and also that "they knew they wouldn't be vying with a smartphone" for her attention. They called it "mom's digital diet." So how'd it go?

Yes, there were moments when I felt existentially lost... But it also felt exhilarating to use my hands for digging tunnels in the sand and turning the pages of a novel instead of just for tapping away on a screen. For the first time in I don't know how long, I was really seeing my kids. And they were relishing being seen.

Like all diets, my digital one wasn't sustainable. Just as we can't survive without food, I can't work or live without my devices. When it came time to reenter my real life, I was determined not to lose the awareness of how screens were interrupting the flow of our family life and virtual beckonings were taking attention away from the real people in front of me.

To help in our ongoing battle against our expanding digital waistline, HuffPost has collected articles and blog posts and resources under the Screen Sense banner.

So as you're gathering with your family and eating and drinking, one easy suggestion is to remember that it doesn't all have to be memorialized in real time. Though an increasing number of people don't seem to realize it, it turns out the body can digest unphotographed food just fine.

The holidays aren't only a time to socialize and entertain and connect. At the end of the holiday season, New Year's, we have a built-in time to reflect and recharge. So this year, add a digital diet to your resolutions. Your mind and body -- as well as your family -- will thank you.