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Just Say No: Lessons Learned About Holiday Stress

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How obnoxious and silly to say, at the age of 32 years old, that I long for the energy and youth that carried me through the busiest social periods of my past.

I used to thrive on evenings that consisted of multiple plans. Three or more parties? Then we will hit them all, I'd think. Perhaps some day I'll regain such strength of body and mind. But not this year. Not in time for the remainder of the holiday rush.

Friends, the season is upon us.

The parties. The travel. The cookies and eggnog are beckoning, although to be honest, I'm more likely to eat too much from the cheese and crackers spread.

Holiday stress attacks at many angles, from the obligations that involve one's physical presence, to the pressure to buy an appropriate gift. I found myself staring at a display of bath gels the other night while shopping for presents, wondering if the strawberry daiquiri-scented version would be over the top or just the right amount of fun. These decisions, they tear us apart.

When I Googled the term "holiday stress," I immediately discovered a guide on the subject from the Mayo Clinic complete with 10 tips for coping with the widespread problem. The last of these? Tellingly: "Seek professional help if you need it."

I'm not quite there yet. But this year I am undoubtedly experiencing the condition to some extent.

My husband and I have a two-year-old and another on the way. My father -- who has been known to hide invitations from my more social mother in the hopes that she would never know of the parties they'd missed -- advised me to use my pregnancy and small child like an arsenal of weapons when refusing to attend this gathering or that one.

Still, I feel a certain pressure to be everywhere, see everyone, ensure that my family has the very best Christmas imaginable and, according to the experts, I'm not alone.

"I think the levels of anticipation are always high at this time of year, and with some people, depending on their psychological state, the missed opportunities and disappointments of the past come forward with a great deal of force and they can be problematic," says Dr. Aileen Sirey, a semi-retired New York City-based psychotherapist. "And that's coupled with running around and to the parties, where everyone's supposed to be happy."

As with so many of our conflicts, the best solution is to look within. "In my business, I would always look deeper," says Sirey. "What's stressing you out? It's manageable when you begin to think about the reality of what's happening around you and what needs to be done and what doesn't need to be done."

It's easier said than done. This year, however, in spite of my social nature, I'm trying to listen to reason.

At this age, my daughter is fairly easily entertained, and one of her current favorite games is when we get under the fleece blanket we keep on our living room couch and pretend we're in a tent. Simple imagination games like this are my favorite, especially when my primary role in the setup involves lying down.

We were playing this very game on a bitterly cold day recently; the inside of our "tent" was so warm and cozy that when I finally emerged, I was struck by the near cruelty of the real world by comparison: the bright light outside, filtered through a blanket of gray clouds and the many fallen needles underneath our Douglas fir. Upstairs, I knew, were presents in need of wrapping and, even worse, a scribbled list in my date book indicated presents I still needed to buy.

My daughter thought of no such things. Of course not, she's only two and the holidays, as they should be, are only excitement for her. Only fun.

As though reading my mind and realizing that I was thinking of getting started on a tedious and never-ending to-do list, she suggested that we retreat back into our improvised blanket tent.

So we did, and I let my obligations slide, remembering for one afternoon, at least, to do what the expert -- at that moment in the form of a strikingly sensible toddler -- said, and I focused on what really needed to be done.

The rest, I happily concluded as we resumed our indoor camp out, could wait.

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