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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014

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In Holiday Guide

Don't sink yourself this season. (PHOTO: shutterstock.com )

Give yourself the gift of sanity: How to survive holiday stress


For many, the holidays bring a lot of joy thanks to extra time off from work, a plethora of parties and the chance to give to and receive from the extra-special someones in our lives.

On the flip side, blown budgets, travel and family reunions can create holiday-related tension, but luckily, there are ways to proactively avoid it.

Katie Bugbee is the managing editor at Care.com, a business dedicated to locating care professionals from nannies to tutors. Bugbee says asking for help – or hiring help – is the the top way to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the holidays.

"The people you trust are the people you can lean on," says Bugbee. "Need help decorating the house, taking the holiday photo and even addressing the envelopes? Ask your sitter to stay an extra hour here and there and help you out."

Mora Wright is a professional holiday planner and her business is based on people willing and able to outsource some of their holiday responsibilities. Wright says she works with people to make the most of their holidays within their financial, physical and emotional limits.

"Nothing ruins a holiday like stress. But it doesn't have to be that way. Planning ahead for everything is the best way to take control of the holidays and not have them control you," says Wright. "Start as early as you can. Don't tell yourself you have plenty of time or it's too early. It is easy to enjoy the season when most of your obligations are taken care of."

I have given the holiday season a lot of thought over the years, interviewed numerous experts and read extensively on the subject of keeping yourself in a state of joy during December. That said, here are a few more suggestions to ensure your holiday contains more sparkle and less stress.

Make a list (and OK, check it twice if you must). Creating lists ties into planning ahead. They also make it very clear what needs to get done and prevent the brain from abstractly sending stressful messages like, "I have so much to do!" For starters, make a list of everyone you plan to give a gift. Set an amount for each person. Stick to that amount. Make a holiday card list or consider not sending holiday cards at all if it seems like too much. Make a list of anything else you want to accomplish during the month of December. And remember, start each list with "make a list" so you get to cross something off immediately. Instant gratification.

Don't fall into holiday mode and abandon normal practices. As much fun as it is to indulge during the holidays, overdoing it leads to stress and, in some cases, depression. Try not to binge eat / drink and tell yourself you'll make up for it after the New Year. Be reasonable and try not to ingest more than you would the other 11 months of the year. Sure, have a piece of candy or a cookie or piece of fudge like any other little treat, but then stop. Don't eat five just because they're there and it's the holidays and that's "what ya do" during the holidays. Stay with yourself.

Plan conversation responses. If you are going to be around problematic or non-supportive or just-plain-annoying family members during the holidays and are expecting difficult questions like "Are you and so-and-so planning on having kids?" or "Have you thought any more about your mother and I coming to live with you?" then have your responses ready to go. Think through possible conversation scenarios ahead of time so when a loaded question gets fired at the dinner table, you're ready with a tactful, self-preserving response.

Plan topics of conversation. Perhaps the key to avoiding uncomfortable conversations is to be the instigator of more-comfortable conversations. Think about who will be at your holiday events and pre-conceive some "safe" topics for conversation. Didn't Uncle Bill change jobs this year? Perfect – ask him about it. Didn't your cousin's wife post something on Facebook about a mural she painted in her son's room? Even more perfect – asking people about their children is usually a very safe place to hold conversation.

Personally, I call this the "lily pad approach" to dealing with people, particularly family members, who have very different opinions on politics, religion, child rearing, etc. I will only conversation "hop" from topic to topics that I am certain can hold my weight on and that serve as respites in the otherwise murky waters.

Take care of yourself. If you are traveling, don't skimp on your favorite items to save room in the car or luggage. Bring your pillow, slippers, book, flask – whatever will make you feel most comfortable in your temporary surroundings. Also, get enough sleep, talk to your partner about the usual accommodations if they don't work for you and try to find an alternative. Give yourself the gift of expressing your needs and in return, it may give you the gift of sanity.

Remember what's really important about the holidays. Our immediate family members along with a few other special folks are the most important people in the world, and this should be reflected in the amount of holiday energy we expend on others. All energy is finite, so don't waste it on anyone who has been a year-round Scrooge. Rather, focus on family and true friends.

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