Holiday stress: Keeping a happy face

The following ran in abbreviated form in the Tuesday, Dec. 21, issues of The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. It appears here in two parts — yesterday and today — with additional information, two additional tips and an exclusive holiday survival scenario by Countess LuAnn de Lesseps of Bravo TV’s “The Real Housewives of New York City” (and author of “Class with the Countess”). Yesterday, we covered tips 1. (Should I break down and buy gifts?), 2. (“So … .”) and 3. (Your mother-in-law got a good deal on airfare so she’s staying two weeks instead of one. Your husband announces he’s going hunting for one of those weeks. And please tell me those aren’t bed bugs.) Today, 4-8.

4. Two days — two days!?! — ‘til the big day and I’ve still got all this to do? “Don’t look at the big picture or you’ll be overwhelmed before you begin,” advises Steve Siebold, a mental toughness trainer and author of “177 Mental Toughness Secrets of the World Class.” Break down the tasks ahead and tackle them individually. “It’s about small steps,” says Siebold.

It also means occasionally (or frequently) reverting to that tension tamer of childhood, the Time Out. “Make sure to decompress … to give your body and mind a chance to relax and get you back on track,” advises Dr. Michael Finkelstein, founder and director of SunRaven, a holistic healing center in New York. “Whether this means just a moment alone to process your surroundings, practicing meditation, or prayer, taking some time for yourself is necessary to keep a balance during the holiday mayhem.”

(Personally, I recommend stepping outside and giving up a good primal scream.)

5. And in this corner, weighing 140 pounds (she wishes!), Aunt Esther …  Some relatives come looking for a fight. You know who they are, and you probably have a good idea how long you can tolerate them. “Make sure you don’t overdose yourself on people you can predict will be unpleasant,” suggests Dr. Paul Brinich, the Chapel Hill psychologist from yesterday’s post. “If you can only tolerate them for two hours, set a time limit. Then you can remind yourself, ‘I only have to put on this happy face for X amount of time’.”

One of the reasons family get-togethers sometimes get tense is because everyone tends to get recast into roles they grew up playing and have, hopefully, outgrown. “If you were the troublemaker as a child,” says Sheila McNamee, professor of communication at the University of New Hampshire, “you’ll be cast as (and begin acting as) the troublemaker today. The pull of these rituals is so strong and so familiar that we most often feel incapable of changing these patterns.”

Recognizing that you’re no longer 8 (your graying hair and love handles might be good props for this exercise) is a good first step in breaking the pattern.

6. Stress Alert! According to Jeffrey Greeson, clinical health psychologist at Duke University, sometimes just being able to recognize the early warning signs of stress — racing heart , shortness of breath, clenched jaw — is enough to help you diffuse it. “By just paying attention,” he suggests, “you may be able to feel it but not feed it.”

And if you aren’t able to pick up on those signals yourself? Then maybe you need the emWave PersonalStress Reliever, a handheld gadget with a built-in finger sensor that flashes and makes noise when you start freaking. Not only does it alert you to your stress, it helps talk you down with proven “coherence techniques.” $199.95, comes in blue or silver.

7. Chill and stay young. Stressing has now been scientifically proven to age you: thus, the more you worry, the less time you’ll be around to worry. According to author Thea Singer in her book, “Stress Less,” scientists have shown that stress is heck on our cells, making our hair fall out and messing with our DNA.

8.  Don’t nag (it’ll make you fat). A common response when you feel things are out of control is to nag. Resist the urge, advises Dr. Finkelstein of SunRaven. “Pointless nagging of other people will burden you in the long run. This type of aggression actually triggers a response in your brain that causes the release of cortisol, a hormone that alters your metabolism and among other things wastes your energy and causes you to store fat.”

Bonus tip from the Countess: Let’s say you’re having a neighborhood a party and it’s the first time everyone is getting together since a contentious group vacation over the summer. There’s likely to be tension. How do you diffuse the situation and clear the way for a holiday gathering free of hair pulling?

Who better to ask for advice on the taming of the shrew than Countess LuAnn de Lesseps of Bravo TV’s “The Real Housewives of New York City” (and author of “Class with the Countess”). We posed a scenario to the Countess/etiquette book author ripped from the pages of “Housewives”; she offers her thoughts:

“If the memory of a disastrous group vacation is likely to cast a shadow on your festive holiday gathering and you are nervous as to how your guests will behave, I suggest you do the following:

  • When you invite your guests, mention whom you are inviting, so they can opt out.
  • Greet everyone at the door with a smile on your face and a glass of wine in your hand.
  • Make sure everyone gets a drink soon after arriving.
  • During your toast, make light of the previous summer’s disastrous vacation, and try to find humorous anecdotes that will make the experience seem funny in retrospect.
  • During the party, circulate the room and when there is a lull in conversation or things seem to be getting a bit tense, spark up conversation by telling a good joke.
  • If guests start acting out, pull them aside and privately tell them that either they cool down or they have to leave.
  • Sprinkle your conversations with compliments and you’ll be surprised how quickly tension thaws in the presence of an enthusiastic and warm hostess!

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