Holiday tradition of 'too much'

Most people can't escape the holidays without feeling a little stressed out. The stress comes from holiday overload overeating, drinking too much, sleeping too little, overspending, trying to do too many things, or dealing with family expectations, said Craig Mental Health Clinical Program Coordinator Gina Golden.

"Of course I get stressed between Thanksgiving and Christmas," said Sue Quick, a Craig resident. "That's because I try to do too much I do a newsletter and send it out with all my Christmas cards, I put together 100 pieces of a village under my Christmas tree, decorate the tree, decorate the house, fix up baskets for all my neighbors, and then I have to do all that baking and still find time to visit my grandson ...."

Much of our holiday stress comes from creating unrealistic expectations. "We tend to strive for the myth of the perfect holiday, the Christmas of our childhoods; and we base our expectations too much on what we see in the media," Golden said.

People can get too wrapped up in the holiday magic. "Whenever people get stuck in the glitziness of the holidays or the excessiveness, they can kind of get ramped up and lose their impulse control," said Roianne Ahn, a University of Colorado at Boulder psychiatrist. "They overspend, overeat and go into an excess behavioral mode. That can be a problem."

Golden said overspending on gifts can cause a lot of stress. "Tone down the commercialism of the holidays by beefing up traditions that don't cost money, like caroling, volunteering time, or asking the kids to choose a few toys to give to the less fortunate," she suggested.

Other tips Golden has for avoiding stress over the holidays are:

n Lower your expectations, be realistic about what you can do.

n Reassess your priorities.

n Don't overwork yourself with holiday preparations.

n Spend your money wisely.

n Be realistic about your relatives. Don't expect everyone to get along perfectly; focus on the reason for the gathering, not the problems.

According to Ahn, who works at CU Boulder's Wardenburg Health Center Psychiatric Clinic, stress can add to the roller coaster effect of emotions during the holidays. For some people, the intense, joyous atmosphere that comes with Thanksgiving and Christmas can accentuate feelings of emptiness when the moment passes.

"They can get stuck in the emptiness and the despair and the hopelessness of feeling separate and disconnected," Ahn said. "Getting stuck in any of these places can certainly lead to depression, anxiety, a sort of hyperness of not being able to stop and calm down."

Karen Post, a counselor at Yampa Valley Psychotherapists, said holiday depression stems from being separated from loved ones and family members. "Separation from death or divorce, experiencing that loss, can bring a feeling of anxiety or loneliness," she said. "The stress that gets people down is when the motivation behind that is to have fun because they're trying to escape feeling lonely."

Adding to the problem is the fact that people in the new millennium are more stressed than ever before. According to a United Nations study, people around the world, particularly workers, are experiencing record levels of stress. Ahn attributes that to Western attitudes that encourage high productivity, more job time and less personal time.

"We always have to produce, always at a high level, no matter what the circumstances are," she said. "There is a danger, I think, when you're in a high-productivity environment, that there's no permission for slowing down, for reflecting, for taking stock."

Job-related stress spills onto personal time, adding more pressure during the busy holidays.

"Instead of doing things the way you've always done them, start a new tradition," Post said. "It's a great way to alleviate the internal pressure of trying to be perfect. In both social time and down time it's really important to take some personal time for yourself."

Quick admits she enjoys her holiday activities. "It's Christmas and I want to make everybody happy," she said. "It pretty much cools out for me about the second or third of January, after I take my tree down on the first. But this year I am taking a little time for myself - I started walking to and from work and I decided if something doesn't get done, it just flat doesn't get done."

Golden said it's important to remember to take good care of yourself all year long - eat right, get enough sleep, and take time out to relax - but it's especially true during the holidays. "Holiday stress and depression are common and should pass as the strain and activity of the season ends," she said. "But if you do feel unable to cope, talk to someone or seek help from a professional."

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