Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
The hectic holiday season can leave many people feeling exhausted and anxious instead of merry and bright. Mental health experts offer some ways to counter the chaos.
By Jane Weaver Health editor
updated 12/23/2004 1:38:16 PM ET 2004-12-23T18:38:16

Mary Huhn, a writer in New York City, loves the "social whirl" of the holiday season, but she knows she can't be the life of every party if she's too tired from work and staying up late. She's learned to say "no, thank you" to some invites, tries not to stress out about "all the yummy food offerings in my face," gets enough sleep and maintains her exercise routine.

"I try to pay attention to what my body and mind are telling me," she says. "I know that if I feel overwhelmed, I won't enjoy myself."

Huhn has figured out how to get the most out of the holidays without stressing out, but the hectic season can leave many people feeling exhausted and anxious instead of merry and bright.

Not only are some folks coping with seasonal malaise caused by shortened days and cold winter weather, but they also face the pressure to find the year's hottest (and most expensive) gifts to please family and friends.

"A lot of people around the holidays want to have everything perfect. When it’s not, it causes them stress and anxiety," says James Conti, a psychologist with the Memorial Health Care System in Hollywood, Fla.

Video: Handling holiday stress Stress can energize some people who thrive on the excitement of the season. Others try to do too much and find they have problems with concentration or focusing.

"People get burned out and wish the holidays were over," says Dr. Jeffrey Brantley, director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at Duke University's Center for Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C.

For some people, the holidays are a sad time. According to the American Psychiatric Association, 17 million Americans are affected by depression, a condition that can be exacerbated at this time of year, especially for those who are estranged from family or may not have gotten lots of party invitations.

"People who aren't as socially connected see others having a wonderful time and feel lonely," says Dr. Bruce Rabin, a professor of psychiatry and medical director at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Healthy Lifestyle Program.

Keeping spirits bright
Anyone is susceptible to holiday stress and strain, say mental health experts. But there are ways to counter the chaos and keep your spirits up during the season:

  • Be realistic
    Whether it's finding the ideal gift, resolving long-running family disputes or throwing a memorable party, "there are so many unrealistic expectations out there," says Dr. Robert Gerstman, a psychiatrist with Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa. "People have an idea in their mind of how things should be and don't allow themselves room for error."
  • Focus on family
    People get distressed around the holidays because they're not tapping into "the deeper value," says Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention at the Maharishi University of Management, a liberal arts and sciences university in Fairfield, Iowa, with a focus on consciousness-based studies and stress reduction.

    "They're getting lost in the gifts and the more materialistic value and that's not as deeply satisfying as it could be," says Schneider. "Stop what you're doing and put some attention on the values that are important to your personal life and family life and whatever tradition you follow."
  • Keep exercising
    There's a tendency to slow down during the holidays, but don't give up exercising — it's a good way to reduce stress. At the same time, if your schedule gets too hectic, you can let yourself scale back without feeling guilty.

    "Don't worry about sticking to a regular regimen," says Howard Feldman, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital Center for Integrative Medicine in Chicago. "Just get anything in. That can be helpful and it's better than not doing it at all."
  • Take a few deep breaths
    "Stop. Take two to three deep breaths and connect with the present moment," says Brantley. "The holidays are filled with wonderful moments and people are missing the connection with these moments."

    Deep, abdominal breathing increases the amount of oxygen in the blood and can help reduce levels of stress hormones in the body, adds Rabin.
  • Watch your checkbook
    Conti offers a practical solution: "Manage your finances so you don’t get slapped with post-holiday letdown." Simplify gift-giving beyond your immediate family so that you only give a gift to siblings' children or draw names so you get a gift for only one sibling.

    That's good advice considering that a majority of Americans say money issues cause the most stress during the holidays, according to recent poll by the American Psychological Association.

Kids can be down, too
The holidays are supposed to be a magical time for children. But there are many young ones who may be depressed due to a divorce or because they have lost a parent or have a parent away on active military duty, says Dr. David Fassler, a child psychiatrist at the University of Vermont College of Medicine in Burlington.

"Kids hold a lot of things in, in anticipation of the holidays, but if there is a major letdown or things don't go well, or there is tension or conflict around the family gathering" they can suffer depression, says Fassler. That's why January is one of the busiest times of the year for many children's mental health experts.

"Sometimes kids and adults feel that everyone has to be so happy that they have to pretend," says Fassler. "But even most kids dealing with loss or stressful situations can enjoy this time of year if parents are sensitive and create an open atmosphere where kids feel free to talk about their thoughts."

Depression in children often appears as irritability, conflicts with others or problems with concentration, says Fassler. If you notice that a child's mood or behavior has changed after the holidays and lasts for several weeks, talk to a doctor, he says.

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