It wasn’t even close to Halloween when major stores first started decking the aisles with Christmas decorations. Yes, the countdown is officially on to the Holiday Season: turkey and stuffing and presents and drunken office parties.

But it’s not always a festive season. The last two months of the year are difficult for a lot of people: Family gatherings, traveling and the pressure to spend a lot of money can take the joy out of the season. We talked to Elizabeth Ochoa, chief psychologist at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, about how to get through the holidays with a minimum of stress. And maybe even enjoy yourself, too.

Why do the holidays cause so much stress?

Holiday planning brings to-do lists, shopping, family gatherings, and parties. This is a time of high expectations, when achieving perfection seems important…the perfect gift, the perfect party, the perfect family reunion, the perfect dress. When unrealistic expectations and numerous demands fail to be met, then stress peaks.
 
It's also a time when unresolved family issues or painful memories of loss emerge. Ignoring these feelings allows them to build without an outlet. Acknowledge your feelings and confide in a supportive friend. Sometimes the holidays can trigger feelings of longing and isolation, especially if you are far away from home or alone.

Why do our families seem to strain us so much this time of year?
 
Family members have expectations for each other that are longstanding. Holidays often are a time of reflection and revisiting the past. Everyone has a unique role in her family and it's easy to fall into that role even as an adult returning home despite having outgrown it. Old patterns of relating to each other and behaviors crop up and repeat. Families also tend to gravitate to traditions. Try to introduce new ways of celebrating the holidays, thereby making new memories.

How can we relax and enjoy the holidays instead of stressing out about them?

The key to enjoying the holidays is to prevent stress before it begins. Follow these tips for preventing stress:

Set realistic expectations for yourself, family, and friends. Identify holiday tasks and make a chart by listing each activity, breaking down the tasks into simple steps, and making a reasonable timeline in which to get them done. As you do this, notice how you feel about each item. If you feel anxious, then think about how to change the task so it's more manageable.  

Listen to your body. Often people feel stress physically before they understand why. If you notice a pit in your stomach, take a moment to try to understand its source.

Ask for help from others. Delegate tasks. Keep them simple.

Pace yourself. Start early on getting your activities done. Shop all year for holiday gifts, if you see something a friend would like, buy it then! Don't overspend.  

What should you NOT do to relax?

Don't overindulge in yummy food or festive holiday cocktails. Alcohol is a depressant and can dampen your mood.

Don't overcommit to social engagements. Accept invitations to just one or two parties. Don't put yourself in stressful situations with friends or family. Don't take responsibility for ensuring everyone else’s happiness. That's each person’s job.

Don't go, go, go. Get adequate rest and make time to exercise.

How do you deal with pressure to divvy up your time without running yourself ragged this time of year?

Prioritize what is most important to you to accomplish this holiday season.
Communicate honestly with friends/family: Learn to say no and not feel guilty. Tell them if you feel overtired or stressed and need a break.

Even though the contentious election will be over by the holidays, there will still be residual feelings. How can we keep our emotions in check when relatives or friends we disagree with start spouting off around the table?

It's simple. Don't engage in the discussion yourself. Suggest changing the topic before tempers fly. The goal of being together with friends and relatives is to enjoy each other, not fight.
 
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