Bah, Humbug? How to Cope With Holiday Stress

Travel. Family. Last-minute Shopping. Here’s how to keep the season merry.

Stressed woman sitting at desk and speaking on phone surrounded by Christmas presents, decorations, alarm clock and calculator over dark background.
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Remember National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation? Chevy Chase's character, Clark Griswold, and his family face one disaster after another: An elaborate Christmas light display doesn't work; eccentric family members show up unexpectedly; the tree goes up in flames; and Clark doesn't receive the end-of-year bonus he's been counting on.

With any luck, your holiday won't be filled with quite as many cringe-worthy catastrophes. Still, the movie does teach us one thing about the "most wonderful time of the year:" It's often a farce.

"The 'perfect holiday' has got to be put in the myth box," says Kathleen Hall, founder and chief executive officer of The Stress Institute in Atlanta. Forget the Norman Rockwell-esque holiday meal, the impeccable wreaths and crafts a la Martha Stewart, and the tree surrounded by mountains of gifts. These ideals rarely reflect reality, Hall says.

[See How to Cope with Holiday Stress]

Expecting holiday frustrations may sound pessimistic, but doing so will likely lead to a merrier season. "The paradox is that the more realistic you are, the less disappointed you'll be in the moment," says David Reiss, a psychologist based in San Diego, Calif. "The more you can laugh it off and say, 'Ha! Here we go again!' instead of 'What do I do now?' the happier you will be."

U.S. News consulted with a few experts who weighed in on how to keep six common holiday stressors from turning jolly elves into frazzled, wine-guzzling Scrooges:

Cancelled flights and unbearable traffic. Traveling during the holidays, especially with children, can be a nightmare. Instead of framing a trip as leaving at one specific time and arriving at Grandma's at another specific time, think of it as an adventure. Say to your kids: "We don't know what's going to happen but we're in it together, and we'll remember this trip for a long time—so let's have fun," Hall suggests. Instead of shuddering because you're not going to arrive at Aunt Peggy's until two hours after dinner, tell the family, "Well, we can stop at this interesting little town and grab a snack with locals to hold us over."

Plus, "Kids mirror your stress," Hall says. "We've got to remember that." Rather than grumbling in dismay at the screen of cancelled departures and arrivals at the airport, make it a game. Ask your kids where they would go if they could visit any of the cities listed on the screen.

If you're traveling by air, pack lots of snacks, since you could wind up sitting on the runway for a few hours. Be sure to include essentials like medicine in your carry-on, as well as comfort items like e-readers. So frazzled that you'd like to give the flight attendant a piece of your mind? It's rarely worth it. "Try not to take it out on the employees, because they're stressed, too," says Reiss. "And they're not going to help you any quicker if you're screaming at them."

[See Your Big, Fat, Gluten-Free Holiday]

Hosting a holiday party. If there's a chance drama is going to brew at your shindig, don't blindside anyone. If you're friends with a couple who recently broke up, call each of them and let them know the other will be attending. Same goes for friends and family who notoriously butt heads.

If you're feeling stressed because you hold this party every year and you always bake gingersnaps, play Monopoly, and sing carols after dinner—and this year, it's just not coming together—relax. "Whatever your tradition is, enjoy the old and create the new," Hall says. If every detail doesn't turn out exactly as planned, step back and remember the point of throwing a party. "If you want to serve pizza with sprigs of holly on it, that's fine," says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. "Don't make yourself crazy thinking that everything has to be picture-perfect because in the end, people just want to get together."

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Family members who drive you crazy. "The fantasy is that we'll all be one big, happy family," Reiss says. "But when you find one big, happy family, let me know." Haven't gotten along with your cousin for the last decade? Don't expect to suddenly be best friends just because it's the holidays. Keep your distance. And if you can't, and your mother-in-law starts hounding you at the dinner table? "When you feel your heart pumping, or you're starting to get hot … leave the situation," Hall says. Excuse yourself to go to the restroom, because even a brief break can keep you from saying something you'll regret.