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'Tis the Season to Be Stressed: A Survival Guide

11/21/2012 02:51 pm ET | Updated Jan 21, 2013

The holiday season is upon us -- a time to lovingly connect with family, to relax, recharge and emerge happy, content and revitalized. Just kidding. In fact, of course, it's usually the complete opposite. But why is that? What is it about special occasions -- whether it's holidays or weddings or birthdays or even just dinner parties -- that fill us with such stress? Instead of leaving us recharged, the holiday season is more likely to leave us drained. Or "blorft," as Tina Fey calls it. "'Blorft' is an adjective I just made up," she writes in Bossy Pants, "that means 'Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.'" Most of us have been there, felt that. And many will be blorft again this week, as the harried prep for Thanksgiving unofficially marks the opening of the Stress Season that will last through New Year's Day, when we can officially start feeling guilty about breaking the resolutions we'll make in response to the stress-induced overindulgence of the holiday season.

So that's why this is the perfect moment -- right before it all starts -- to slow down and reflect on why what should be a time of generosity, celebration, and coming together so often becomes a time of high anxiety. It's also a moment to focus on the steps we can take to truly enjoy the holiday season. Because it's not just enjoyment that holiday stress can take from us, but our health, as well. In the American Heart Association's journal, Circulation, Dr. Robert Kloner coined the maladies the "Merry Christmas Coronary" and the "Happy New Year Heart Attack" to describe the increase in cardiac problems during the holiday season -- so there's a lot more at stake than dealing with your mother-in-law's passive-aggressive compliments ("I didn't know you could do this with a turkey -- so creative!").

So how do we change things? As with most things, we can start by changing ourselves -- how we react to the seasonal madness. And if enough people changed, then the culture itself would change. "If you want to change the world," Alexander Solzhenitsyn asked, "who do you begin with, yourself or others?"

Stress is truly in the eye -- and the psyche and arteries and heart and immune system -- of the beholder. Change the way we deal with it and we change the situation. But how to do that?

As longtime readers of HuffPost know, the dangers of stress and what to do about it has been one of our core themes since the beginning. Two weeks ago, to mark National De-Stress Day, our 13 lifestyle sections -- from Parents to Travel to Weddings and Divorce -- featured advice, stories and tips on living with less stress (and yes, you can even divorce with less stress, too).

But, of course, the holidays have a stress-producing capacity all their own. Activities we should ostensibly enjoy become wellsprings of stress. People we love become just more items to check off on the to-do list. Instead of feeling connected to our friends and family, they come to represent obligations that make us feel more distant.

Over the years, we've run many pieces specifically targeting the many facets of holiday-related stress. "Holiday stress is an ironic reality for many," writes Robert Taylor. "The anxiety that such stress produces is a sharp counterpoint to the holiday spirit of joy, peace, goodwill and gratitude!"

In fact, gratitude can be the greatest antidote to stress during the holidays. And what better time to start practicing it then during Thanksgiving? Robert Emmons, of the University of California, Davis, and Michael McCullough of the University of Miami have done a lot of research in the field of gratitude. And they have found that people who keep gratitude journals and gratitude lists have more enthusiasm, determination, energy, optimism -- and less stress. As Doctors Blair and Rita Justice put it, "a growing body of research shows that gratitude is truly amazing in its physical and psychosocial benefits."

Laughter is another great antidote to stress and the perfectionism that is rampant during the holidays. As Beth Golden blogs on HuffPost, "There is no such thing as the perfect meal, and if you happen to achieve it once or twice in your life make sure to mark them on your calendar. For the first-time turkey chef, laugh about the giblets cooked inside the turkey... Laugh, laugh, laugh! Laugh at yourself. Laugh with your guests and let everyone who comes into your home know they are present because they are love, love, loved!"

And Dr. Ben Michaelis reminds us to consider our own needs, otherwise "all of your loving kindness to friends and family members may come out as teeth-clenching resentment."

Of course, one of my favorite tips for any season is "Get enough sleep." Adequate sleep is especially needed around the holidays, since too little REM-time will exacerbate every holiday stress point -- from gift-buying to holiday meals with your in-laws. (Our many pieces about sleep can be found here.) And there's a lot to be exacerbated, including the question of what to wear. Eddie Parsons, who offers tips for stress-free holiday dressing, puts it this way: "No matter what you wear on the outside, people will see the stress you carry on the inside and stress is not a good look."

Considering these many potential stress points, Tamar Chansky writes, "Wait, are we preparing for the holidays -- or final exams?... It's time to change our relationship with the holidays. We don't have to break up with them, but just know that as with all things anxiety, the holidays aren't the problem; it's the story in our head about the holidays that needs to change."

To help us change that story, the Mayo Clinic has come up with some simple recommendations: Acknowledge your feelings; learn to say no; take a breather.

One of my own gift-giving tips is to find something you really love and give it to everybody on your list! It's not only a great time-saver, it's also a great way to share something you love -- whether it's a book or my favorite Pottery Barn alarm clock, which I gave to all my friends last year so they could stop using the excuse that they needed their iPhone by their bed to wake them up in the morning.

One of the most centered people I know, Joan Witkowski, who does body work and breathing coordination -- and de-stressed a lot of political convention-goers at the HuffPost Oasis this year -- has a simple practice for herself that we can all use during the holiday shopping insanity:

"Monday is my day of errands, so I used to go down my to-do list and then come home at the end of the day exhausted. Now, I introduce moments of being and recovery in between my errands. I find a cafe or a place to sit, not to look at my phone, but to just breathe and be. By the end of the day, I have everything done and so much more energy."

There are many tools. The key is to prioritize not letting stress turn the holidays from a time of renewal to a time of frenzy. "Everything changed the day she figured out there was exactly enough time for the important things in her life," writes the artist Brian Andreas. I love that quote because it reminds me that even though we may think that we can't possibly fit everything we have to do into the time we have, we can fit everything important.

So as we head into the Most Wonderful Stressful Time of the Year, let's remember to give ourselves the first gift -- the gift of mastering our stress and not being slaves to it.