Holidays are here; don't get stressed

NASHUA – More hugs, fewer presents.

That’s what psychotherapist Janet Brown is advising clients during the holiday season.

“It’s all about giving, not getting,” Brown said of the winter celebrations that include Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. “Give your family the best of you, not the stressed-out, burnt-out, frustrated, agitated, overwhelmed, grumpy you.”

Brown, who works for Foundation Psychological Associates, part of Southern New Hampshire Medical Center, recommends that families and individuals take stock of what they have rather than what they’re lacking and look for ways to help others who are less fortunate during this holiday season.

She said the deepening economic recession gives families an opportunity to deepen their relationships and to show their love in nonmaterial ways.

“If money is an issue, give each other letters telling what loved ones mean to you,” Brown suggested, adding that some families write messages to each other and hang them on the Christmas tree.

For too many people, this year’s holiday season is a time of crisis, Brown observed.

What a person who is strapped, or worse, doesn’t need is more stress.

“Stop and remember what the holiday is really about,” she said. “Sit with your family and think about hope and giving.”

To manage stress, Brown urges families to set new expectations: make a list of priorities, deciding how many parties and how much cooking you want to do; mark all social engagements on a calendar, leaving space for rest breaks; and figure out how to include moderate amounts of exercise in your daily schedule.

“Walk four times a week at midday to get exposed to the sunlight and reduce stress,” Brown suggested.

She also advised taking stock of emotional reserves.

Instead of inviting a difficult relative to your party and risking an upset, make plans to meet alone, perhaps for breakfast at a local restaurant.

Consider doing less, focusing on quality rather than quantity, she continued.

“It’s the quality of the time, not the quantity,” Brown said. “Cookies baked with hostility don’t taste as good.”

She suggested limiting the number of cards sent, and even the length of the notes included, to reduce the holiday workload.

Above all, Brown stressed, remember that the holidays are about human connections, hope and love.

“Ask your kids, ‘What are the three things you really want? Is there one thing we can give to another family who otherwise would have no presents?’ ” she said.

Brown’s colleague, registered dietitian Lisa Nogueira, offers similar advice to her clients at Southern New Hampshire Medical Center.

Like Brown, she also finds some silver linings in the cloudy economic forecast.

“If you cut down on calories, you save dollars,” Nogueira said, pointing out that families and individuals who decide against overindulging during the holidays are likely to feel happier and healthier afterward.

She suggests eating regular meals on the day of a party, including a light snack before the social event, strategies to counter overeating.

Likewise, limit consumption of alcoholic beverages to save calories and avoid weight gain, she said. And remember to drink a glass of water between glasses of wine or other alcoholic drinks, another way to avoid over-consumption and the lack of willpower over fattening foods that may follow.

Nogueira said she urges clients to make foods at home to save money and to plan food purchases around supermarket specials.

Buy meats and vegetables on sale and freeze them, she continued, describing the simple process of blanching vegetables: cut into bite-sized pieces, immerse in boiling water for several minutes, then remove and place in zip-lock freezer bags and store in the freezer.

The nutrition expert, who also has a degree in exercise physiology, said other stress-busting strategies include maintaining an exercise schedule, even for shorter amounts of time, and finding ways to celebrate without food.

For shoppers, she said, getting a workout before heading to the mall is one way to arrive relaxed. It also encourages better eating habits on the road.

“You’ll make better (food) choices during the day and spend less money,” she said.

Nogueira recommended a shopping list of tips to reduce stress and increase holiday happiness:

Plan regular meals and include fiber and whole grains.

Make exercise a part of your day, even if it’s short.

Start a new family tradition based on an outdoor activity.

Buy ingredients and make your own, rather than buying prepared food trays.

Buy on sale.

Prepare foods ahead and freeze for convenient weekday meals. Avoid stopping for subs and pizza.

Carry healthy snacks in the car. Make a peanut butter and banana roll-up or pack crackers and low-fat cheese. Consider carrying a serving of dry cereal to munch on.

Get adequate sleep. Sleep deprivation interferes with hormones that make you feel full. It can lead to overeating and weight gain.

Seek professional help if you’re having trouble managing. Registered dietitians provide education, support, counseling and motivation. And most are covered by health insurance, as are psychological services, which target behavioral and emotional problems.

For information about psychological services, call the New Hampshire Psychological Association at 225-9925.