11/16/2012 08:17 am ET Updated Jan 15, 2013

The Essential Post 50 Guide For Handling Holiday Stress

The holiday season can be a wonderful time of year, but it also can be the most stressful for people in their 50s and beyond. There are joyous occasions with family and friends, to be sure, but there also are the constant demands placed on your time, energy and financial reserves associated with social gatherings and obligations. Instead of just having to fend for yourself, a spouse and/or kids, you now must contend with the clamoring of everyone in your social network related to everything from office parties to holiday greeting cards. Pulled in so many different directions, it's hard to find time for sleep, relaxation and exercise -- all needed to stay healthy.

This dire scenario doesn't have to unfold. You can take control over the so-called stressors in your life, no matter what the time of year, by taking advantage of some relatively simple coping strategies. You've undoubtedly read umpteen generic guides to handling "holiday stress." But here you'll learn about the one, most important way to reduce your stress -- not just at holiday time, but all year round.

At the heart of any good coping strategy is your recognition that stress is in the mind of the beholder. There is no event so inherently terrible that people can't find a way to reduce their stress. Perhaps you've been through a cataclysmic situation where you lost someone or something dear to your heart. How did you get through that situation? The chances are that you found a way to adapt to the new normal that the loss or trauma created. It's all about how you frame it. Some people get through stress by seeing it as a test of their faith. Others try to figure out how to manage all the problems that the calamity created. Lost your first floor in a flood? You start drying and digging your way out of it.

If we can get through these major stressors, we can also get through the minor ones using similar mental reframing methods. However, you might already be arguing that holidays and family occasions are supposed to be fun. There's no way you can compare these fun situations to the trauma of going through a disaster. Actually, you can. Sometimes it's even the small stuff, the hassles that can get to us more than the big, tough, losses.

Part of the reason the hassles are so hard to cope with is that we minimize their importance. You say that you can't possibly feel sorry for yourself just because 10 people are coming to spend two weeks with you when other people are still digging out of hurricane-flooded homes, living without power for weeks on end or surviving the loss of a spouse to cancer. Those situations, granted, are horrible. But no matter how small the situation, if it's making you miserable, it's creating a stress you need to deal with.

Once you realize that stress is in the eye of the beholder, you're one step closer to using good coping strategies. Coping is a form of managing stress that evaluates the demands of the situation and compares them to the resources you have to help handle those demands. Your stress is reduced when the coping strategy you use matches the demands of the situation.

There's no one best way to cope. When a stressful situation is beyond your ability to control it, then your best way of coping is to adjust yourself emotionally. This form of coping, called "emotion-focused," helps reduce your perception of stress by changing the way you feel about it. OK, so the pie has fallen apart, your relatives have gotten into a shouting match, or you're stuck in traffic and you're letting everyone down as the main course starts getting cold. You can't change what's happened, so now your best bet is to adjust your emotions. Look for the silver lining, think about how much worse things could be then they are, or meditate your way through to the other side. On the other hand, if the situation can be changed, then you'll only become more stressed if you disappear into your own little world. You've got too much to do in too little time. Listen to the voice of rationality inside your head that says "Make a list!" Get your calendar out. Ask someone for help. Prioritize. You may not get everything done, but you'll make a good effort at reducing the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Much of the stress that people over 50 experience, no matter what the time of year, occurs due to the damage we place on our bodies. Whereas you may have pulled all-nighters with ease in your 20s and 30s, loss of sleep has a more profound effect on your immune system than it did in your earlier years. Similarly, failing to exercise, even if it's just walking instead of riding the elevator, also weakens your body's ability to handle stress. Drinking alcohol or eating to excess are the final two kisses of death when it comes to stress. Not only are you more likely to become ill, but you'll be less cognitively able to pull off the coping strategies that will concretely improve your situation. Memory loss is not an inevitable fact of midlife, but it is more likely to occur in people who fail to take advantage of simple healthy activities such as getting proper sleep, exercise and eating right.

We can't ever say goodbye completely to stress in our lives, but we can make it better. You can cope with stress through the holidays and beyond, no matter how big or small the stress, once you discover the key to coping.