- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

Millions dread the holiday season’s stressful annual mix of family spats, broken diets, overspending and sad memories. Don’t fret, though. It’s manageable.

Sing, and sing early, said Andra Medea, the Chicago-based author of the new book “Going Home Without Going Crazy.” Preventive strategies can begin on the car ride over to the family feast.

“Turn on the radio and start singing at the top of your lungs. Don’t bother meekly humming along with the music. Really belt it,” Miss Medea said. “Roll the window down, inhale some fresh air. If the kids start fighting in the back seat, they’ve probably absorbed your tension. Don’t yell at them, sing at them. Get them singing, too.”

Unrealistic expectations about those proverbial “happy” holidays may be the real problem, though.

“In terms of relationships, nothing magical ‘just happens’ during the holidays,” said Dr. William Ishak of the Adult Outpatient Psychiatry Service at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

“If you don’t get along with your in-laws during the year, you’re probably not going to get along with them during the holiday season either,” he said. “Understanding that before you go to visit them can make a big difference in how you’ll handle your feelings while you’re there.”

Financial stress, crowded schedules and persistent memories of “perfect holidays past” or lost loved ones spawn tension, anxiety and melancholy, he added.

“Focus on what you really enjoy about the season. Spend more time living in the moment,” Dr. Ishak said, advising the overbooked and underappreciated to dwell on activities that have personal significance and be optimistic that “meaningful moments” will surface amid the hubbub.

Oregon psychiatrist Dr. Ward Smith agrees that life can be rough despite twinkling trees and luxurious gifts.

“The holiday season does not banish reasons for feeling sad or lonely,” Dr. Ward said, also advising people to keep their expectations on a manageable level.

“Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Leave yesteryear in the past, and look to the future,” he added.

Holiday weight gain may not be as huge as guilt-struck revelers imagine, meanwhile. Most people only gain a pound or two, according to University of Texas dietitian Lona Sandon, who said long-term weight gain — 10 to 20 pounds over a decade — is more a concern than seasonal pounds that can be lost by heeding a simple New Year’s resolution to slim down.

“Don’t starve all day before a big feast, and you’ll be less likely to overeat. Eat slowly, wait a few minutes after one serving to see if you are full — and bring a low-calorie dish to family feasts,” she added.

Women tend to struggle with their diets, though. A new survey of almost 800 adults by the American Psychological Association found that 41 percent of the women said they “ate for comfort” during holidays, compared with a quarter of the men.

Some research reveals that the phenomenon of holiday stress itself may be overblown. A recent Gallup poll of 1,003 adults found that 55 percent said holiday shopping was a “joyful experience” while 67 percent said they did not find holidays stressful.

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