It's the time of year when you spend all your time and money in the mall. When you cook and bake and entertain, visit with family, deck the halls, trim the tree, wrap the gifts, and hope you survive into the happy new year.
'Tis the season to be jolly -- but there are times when you may feel hurried, harried, irritated, aggravated, overworked, overfed, overpartied, underappreciated and generally blue.
To say nothing of guilty and confused: Why, in this time of peace and joy, should you feel so stressed out?
"Because hype and expectations are at odds with real experience," answered Harold Steinitz, Ph.D., coordinator of stress management programs at Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Towson.
"This is a season of change, and all change is stressful," he added. "You have disruptions in your schedule. You have visitors. You have to go out and buy gifts -- and not just buy them; you also have to think about them. And you still have a job to go to, and bills to pay . . ."
Last week, we asked readers to call SUNDIAL, The Sun's telephone information service, to tell us how they get through the season with less stress. To their suggestions we added a few hints from professionals, and came up with the following tips on how to make your holidays a little calmer, a little brighter.
Cut yourself a little slack seemed a popular antidote to holiday wear-and-tear: "Everybody deserves a mental health day," Maggie Lears of Baltimore told SUNDIAL.
"We take one day," in the pre-Christmas period, says the a full-time doctoral student, wife and mother. "Everyone takes off from work or school, we sleep late, and then we do Christmas things, like make cookies and a gingerbread house and other things we wouldn't do at all or else have to pack into a weekend."
Maureen Larkin, too, gives herself a treat -- a manicure, and a relaxed afternoon with a couple of friends two days before Christmas. "What better way to relax than to pamper yourself?" she asked.
"This is a profoundly spiritual time; people may need to say, 'No' to some things [like office parties] and savor the meaningful, spiritual parts of life," said Barbara Laukaitis, another SUNDIAL caller.
The program director for Christian discipleship at Faith Presbyterian Church on Loch Raven Boulevard, Ms. Laukaitis spent the weekend observing the beginning of Advent rather than shopping. "I take a chunk of time to pray, reflect, write in my journal," she said.
A balancing act
In addition, Ms. Laukaitis takes a "wholistic point of view: Am I eating well, exercising, taking care of myself so that I will be better able to assist the people who come to me?"
And to the list of things people can do to take care of themselves, Dr. Steinitz added taking a pleasant walk, listening to music, exercising, and practicing some method of formal relaxation -- either self-hypnosis, imagery, or progressive muscle relaxation.
Moderation in food and alcohol is also important, he said. Traditional hospitality, the link between food and love, the urge to cast aside inhibitions -- all make keeping eating and drinking in check during the holidays particularly difficult for anyone trying to cutback, or eschew.
"For people with eating disorders, and people who are struggling with their weight, food is seen as an enemy -- and something fondly desired," says David Roth, Ph.D., director of the eating disorders program at Sheppard Pratt. "With all the food people are offered during holidays, they are forced to deal with the seduction and the avoidance of what they love and are fearful of."
Over-indulgence in alcohol carries penalties of its own, not the least of which is the potential for accidents. In fact, according to the National Safety Council, figures from 1989 show that 49 percent of all traffic fatalities involved alcohol.
Emotions in perspective
And during the holiday season, there are some personal issues that require clear-headed thinking: "A huge number of people have to sort through a lot of complexities at this time," Dr. Steinitz pointed out.
That includes deciding whether to go to your family or your spouse's, if you're a couple, or accepting the fact that the kids are going to be with you or your ex, if you're divorced.
It means understanding some family dynamics, if you're heading for the old homestead: "Some old, unresolved issues emerge again; you get back into some old roles," Dr. Steinitz said. "For instance, a father might get parental with a 38-year-old son. Be alert to the fact that this is occurring, or may occur, so that it doesn't ruin things. If you're visiting home, you might be able to manage two days but not four. Think about an optimal visit, not a maximal visit."
It means accepting your own feelings, too. "Don't buy into the demand to feel good all the time," Dr. Steinitz said.
Holidays are, by their nature, the times when you review the good old days and think about loved ones who are no longer here: Your memories may indeed make you sad.