Don't let stress weigh down holidays; experts offer tips

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ATLANTA -- For Michael Flanigan, the holidays overflow with sweetness -- pies, cakes and warm family time.

He revels in decorating the Christmas tree with Nat King Cole crooning softly in the background, whipping up a sweet potato pie, playing football on Thanksgiving with cousins.

Still, as an entrepreneur of a startup company making personalized gifts (theExpressionary.com), this time of year can get extremely busy, and with that comes a certain level of stress.

While the holidays are a wonderful time of year for enjoying traditional rituals, it's inevitable that crowded malls, worsening traffic, and too many events in too little time will wear on us.

Flanigan, 25, mostly takes the holiday stress in stride. He tries not to fret about getting the perfect gift, and he's learned it's OK to say no to holiday parties to avoid getting overbooked.

"When things get really rough, I breathe and meditate and count my blessings, and I'm usually OK," Flanigan said.

Experts believe planning and adjusting expectations -- as well as taking deep breaths -- can go a long way in minimizing stress this time of year.

"There are the commercials, and it's so hyped up that it should just be perfect. And that is a very unrealistic expectation," said Dr. Pamela Everett Thompson, an Atlanta psychologist.

Thompson said family dynamics also can be tricky, with some reverting to old behaviors when they go home. That said, every year provides a new opportunity to break away from old patterns, she said.

"For instance, there's the daughter who has worked extra jobs to help her mother maintain a certain lifestyle and the moment she walks into the house, the mom is talking about how she needs new curtains. … Instead of getting into an argument or getting on a soapbox, the daughter can pleasantly smile and say, 'I wish I could help, but I can't.'"

Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of the Stress Institute based in Atlanta, said if people are feeling low, they should consider switching things up. She suggested volunteering or starting a new holiday tradition by going on a trip or decorating in a new way.

To control spending-related stress, Hall also recommended families organize holiday spending by creating a list of financial costs for gifts, as well as parties and other expenses. Be wary, she said, of emotional spending. If you struggle sticking to a budget at a mall, try shopping online or limiting your visits to a retail center to just a couple of days during the season, she said.

Thompson said it's important to remember what makes this time of year so special, even magical, rarely comes in a box with a bow. It's the memories -- decorating the Christmas tree, lighting Hanukkah candles, singing songs around the fireplace.

"If people could focus on memories instead of creating that perfect gift, if they could focus on the laughter we share, and the reminiscing, even reminiscing over that pound cake you made which was a disaster, that is what sustains us," Thompson said. "Research indicates over and over and over the thing that contributes to well-being is that sense of belonging and connection to community and that we can create for free." Meanwhile, Hall said she believes the devastation from Hurricane Sandy will make people more grounded this year.

Having a sense of gratitude can always put things in perspective, she said.

"Last year, I was feeling overwhelmed, and at the last minute, I put up a Christmas tree," she said. "I put what I was thankful for on yellow Post-its on the tree. Then, my husband wrote what he was thankful for on turquoise Post-its. Then we put up lights. We kept the Post-it notes."