Why Women Are Prone to Holiday Stress—and 3 Things You Can Do About It

It takes a greater toll on women, but here's how to deal.

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It's the holiday season, and the American Psychological Association tells me that I, as a woman, am more likely than my husband to be stressed about buying holiday gifts for our three kids. According to their survey released this week, about 46 percent of women are worried about having enough money to buy gifts compared with 35 percent of men. That goes along with the fact that women are more stressed than men over the economy in general, as I previously blogged about.

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Another new finding suggests that I, as a woman, am more prone to heart disease if I'm raising kids or caring for an elderly parent who lives in my home. The study, published today in the journal Heart, was pretty shocking: Married women ages 40 to 59 who lived with children had twice the risk of developing heart disease as single women or those living only with their spouses. Adding an elderly parent to the mix tripled a woman's heart attack risk. Men, on the other hand, had no such increase in heart disease risk if they lived with kids, parents, or, heck, even their in-laws. (Caveat: The folks in the study were Japanese, and it's possible that American men are more stressed than their Japanese counterparts over family responsibilities.)

The culprit? The researchers speculate that the stress of filling multiple roles as wife, mother, and caregiver boosts stress hormones. That, in turn, could increase women's blood pressure and make their bodies generate inflammatory chemicals that lead to other heart disease risk factors like diabetes and clogged arteries.

So I'm guessing that the additive effect of economic woes, multiple role demands, and worry over too much to do in the countdown to Christmas, Kwanzaa, or Chanukah may have many of us on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

What to do? Psychologist Lynn Bufka, assistant executive director of the American Psychological Association, recommends these three tips.

1. Think memory instead of money: If coveted holiday gifts are out of your budget, think about creating a family memory instead of giving an expensive present. Kids usually value the time you spend with them—whether it's baking cookies, throwing snowballs, or driving around to see holiday lights—far more than the gift that loses its luster soon after the wrapping is torn away.

2. Reset your expectations: Maybe you can't create the same holiday your mom had. "You may be at home far less than your mother was," says Bufka. And that means less time to string up lights or wrap all the presents with perfect bows. "You may need to reinvent those time-consuming traditions," she adds. Or maybe create some new ones of your own.

3. Get your loved ones to cut you some slack: That's probably one of the hardest things to do, especially when you're getting pressured from, say, children who expect the kinds of presents that their friends get or a spouse whose mom set the bar high for holiday festivities. "Talk to them about what's realistically possible," says Bufka. And help them understand what's actually required to fulfill their expectations. Your kids want that $200 Wii? Have them shovel the neighbors' driveways to see how much money they earn in a few hours. Husband wants the five-course dinner with all the trimmings? Give him a supermarket shopping list and a few dishes to make on his own.

If you're finding it hard to overcome the pressure you put on yourself, here's how to overcome perfectionist tendencies.