As reported by The Hartford Courant, December 11, 2009.

Easing Up on Stress During the Holidays

'Let Nothing Ye Dismay' Is Often Easier Said Than Done

By Kathleen Megan

"It's the most wonderful time of the year," insists the department store Muzak. But by the fourth hour of shopping, the lyrics begin to sound ironic.

And what makes it worse is the pressure for perfection: to find the best presents, the right tree, to create a Norman Rockwellian family gathering or a holiday party la Martha Stewart.

It's little wonder that a recent "holiday stress index" done by Harris Interactive turned up hefty figures: 90 percent of respondents said they experience some stress or anxiety about the holiday season, and 41 percent said they are anxious about not being able to purchase gifts for everyone on their list.

Ann Smith, executive director of Breakthrough at Caron, a nonprofit Pennsylvania-based wellness program that commissioned the study, says, "The people most negatively affected are women. For women, it's a long, long to-do list."

At the heart of the stress for many people is a disconnect between what Madison Avenue tells us our holidays should be like and what they actually are like.

"We allow ourselves to be dictated to about the way we should experience Christmas, Hanukkah, the New Year," says Dr. Robert Trestman, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center. "It's got to be over the top. It's got to be 'It's a wonderful world with Jimmy Stewart,' as opposed to in the real world, everyone is different. Not everyone has a close family."

To help our readers reduce stress and enjoy the season more, we've addressed a few of the bigger sources of stress with advice from experts:

The Perfect Tree

This is when families tramp around an icy lot filled with Christmas trees or hike through a field of fresh trees hunting for the tree that speaks to them. It should be a warm and happy family memory, but sometimes the pressure results in arguments about which tree will fit in the living room, which won't, which one has the sweet balsam smell, which does not.

"The conversation can get a little heated then," says Keith Padin of Jones Family Farm in Shelton. He'll overhear: "We should have just gotten the tree that was next to the car."

Peter Kane, a licensed clinical social worker in New Haven, likens these kinds of arguments to getting into a fight over who squeezed the toothpaste in the middle. "If you're fighting about the Christmas tree, you need to figure out what's really going on that's making this difficult. Often there may be underlying disagreements about other issues, which may be holiday-related or not."

Other times it may simply be about the tree. If so, go for compromise: If mom wants an artificial tree because she doesn't want to clean up the needles, maybe the kids could offer to keep the carpet clear of needles and make sure the tree gets adequate water.

Gift Buying

There are two stresses here, of course: finding the perfect gift, and paying for it. According to the Harris poll, more than a third of people surveyed said they expect to feel more stress and anxiety this holiday season, and more than half say they are "strapped" for cash for holiday gift giving.

Experts suggest asking family members for wish lists so you really do know what they want and discussing if an item simply costs too much. In her list of tips for holidays, Dr. Lauren D. LaPorta, head of psychiatry at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson, N.J., says it's OK to tell a child that a particular toy is too expensive or, for a younger child, that Santa doesn't have it in his workshop. She suggests it might be possible for Santa to leave a gift certificate for shopping after Christmas, when the sales start.

Richard Engelhardt, a licensed clinical social worker in Middletown, says don't try to "keep up with the Joneses" when it comes to spending money on gifts. Rather he said, aim for smaller, more meaningful gifts.

LaPorta also suggests homemade gifts or gifts of services, such as baby-sitting, home-cooked meals or help with household tasks.

Elaine Ducharme, a Glastonbury psychologist, suggests talking to relatives and friends about scaling back. "You can ask: 'Would it be OK to just exchange cards this year?' " Ducharme says. "Honestly, I think most people would be relieved."

The Social Whirl

The main thing to remember here is that you are in control, whether you're giving a party or deciding which parties to attend.

If you're giving a party, it might be easier to have two or three smaller potluck parties than one mega party, Trestman says. "It's being connected that brings so much great pleasure."

When it comes to parties you're invited to, "Give yourself the freedom to say thank you, but no thank you," Trestman says. "Some people enjoy four or five parties in a night, but most are not made that way."

For some people, the party scene can be particularly stressful because there is pressure to be merry and to make endless small talk.

Debra Fine, author of "The Fine Art of Small Talk," suggests preparing before a party, thinking about current events, movies or particular topics that might interest the people you'll be seeing. In general, she says, don't ask questions like, "How are you?" or "What's going on?" which inevitably yield answers of "fine" and "not much."

Instead, ask questions like, "What's been going on in your life since the last time I saw you?" questions that prompt longer replies. Instead of asking, "How is work?" ask, "What keeps you busy outside of work?"

In general, Fine says the idea is to ask questions that are personal but not too personal and offer someone a chance to answer in as much detail as they'd like.

Family and Traditions

A meaningful holiday season seems to be all about family and traditions, but what if your family is dysfunctional, or if there's been a major change, such as a death or a divorce, or if certain traditions make you uncomfortable?

Englehardt says, "A lot of people have bad memories from things that happened from their childhood ... memories that get reactivated every year."

If you anticipate family gatherings with mixed feelings, it may help to know you're not alone. About three-quarters of those surveyed in the Harris Interactive poll said their family experiences conflict during holiday gatherings; 28 percent said they are anxious about dealing with family conflicts. Of those who do experience conflict, half said they still want to connect with family, even if there are problems.

In general, experts suggest not trying to untangle longstanding conflicts during the holidays. Put disagreements aside during the holidays and think about addressing them later.