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Keep Holiday Stress to a Minimum: Learn to Say No

For many of us, the holidays were magical in childhood, carefree times to be savored. But then we grew into hordes of harried adults, falling victim to the season's high expectations. Holiday stress has become as much a tradition as the seasonal ham.

"People are overcommitted," says Marc D. Skelton, PhD, PsyD, a psychologist in Laguna Niguel, Calif. "Christmas and other holidays around this time are always supposed to be fun, and you're supposed to do a good job in terms of entertaining friends and family."

In an attempt to live up to the season's tall orders, "people will just run from pillar to post," he says. It's not even "Christmas and other holidays around this time" anymore, some of his clients lament. It's "Stressmas."

We also overload ourselves with inherited traditions, even when they no longer fit into our busy lives, says Elaine Rodino, PhD, a psychologist in Santa Monica, Calif. If one's mother "baked a thousand cookies and gave them to everyone she knew," Rodino says, "people feel obligated to follow the same kinds of things."

But there is a secret to cutting holiday stress: Just say no.

You don't have to bake all those cookies, Rodino says. "You can start your own traditions."

And you can learn to say no to lots of other demands, too, including party invitations that don't entice or a whopping gift list that could clean out a mall. 

Holiday Stress-Reduction Tip: Decide What Matters Most

"The spirit of the holidays is gratitude and giving," says Patti Breitman, co-author of the book How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty

Only a Scrooge would dispute that generosity is admirable. "It's very satisfying to offer support to the people we love, help out a neighbor, or do something positive for the community," Breitman writes. But "the conflict arises when we continually agree to things that please everyone but ourselves or when we commit to tasks for which we have no time or desire."

By saying "yes" to every holiday invitation and demand that comes your way, you could wind up exhausted and possibly broke. Instead, reflect on what you cherish most about the holidays, experts say, whether it's sending greeting cards to maintain relationships, tree trimming, baking, religious observances, seeing family and friends, supporting a charitable cause, or just relaxing.

When you know your priorities, you can turn down the less important things, Breitman says. "It's easier to say 'no' if you know what you're saying 'yes' to."

How to Say No to Holiday Stress

  1. Say No to Parties That You Don't Want to Attend
    First, "Lavishly thank the person for inviting you," Breitman says. Then apply the "less is more" rule, she says. Skip the long-winded explanation in favor of something short, sweet, and general: "I'm sorry, but I already have plans for that day." 

    "Your plan may be to take a bubble bath because you're stressed out. Or you're renting a movie and having hot cocoa with your family," Breitman says. "No one has to know what your commitment is."

    If the other person insists on knowing why you can't come, the burden of prying will be on him, Breitman writes in her book.

    Don't fall into the trap of coming up with new and creative excuses, she says. Instead, paraphrase yourself: "I won't be able to come" or "I already have something on my calendar."

    Don't lie and make up an excuse, Skelton says. "You don't want to hurt someone's feelings, so you come up with anything, but later, it might come back to bite you." In other words, you'll feel embarrassed if you're caught, and you'll damage the relationship, too.

    If you receive an invitation from someone you genuinely want to see -- just not during the hectic holiday season -- suggest an alternative, Breitman says. For example, you can say, "I can't make it to your party, but let's have lunch after the holidays."

  2. Say No to Out-of-Control Gift-Giving
    "Nothing saps the holiday spirit like having to run around and buy gifts you don't have time to shop for, can't afford, and that nobody really needs anyway," Breitman says.

    If you're fed up, you can opt out of family gift-giving traditions "if you don't mind looking like 'the Grinch who said no to Christmas and other holidays around this time,'" she says.

    Or you take a more tactful approach. Consider drawing names for a gift exchange or buying one gift for a household instead of individual presents. Or experiment with novel alternatives:

    • Pool your money and invest in a professionally done family portrait, with prints for everyone.
    • Replace material things with a memorable holiday experience. Rent a house in a vacation spot or national park, or gather everyone to attend a special holiday play or performance.

    Gift cards to family and friends can be a godsend. But Breitman offers another twist -- especially for those on your list who don't need another cheese gift basket or motorized tie rack. 

    Tell them, "I'm starting a new tradition. Instead of giving gifts, I'm going to make a contribution to an organization in your honor."

  3. Say No to Unwanted Houseguests
    Your cousin -- the one who recalls at every family gathering how you got stuck in the dog door trying to sneak out of the house in high school -- wants to move his brood into your home for a week, but you know that you'll end up getting on each other's nerves.

    "Keeping houseguests away is a lot easier than getting rid of them," Breitman warns. "Once they're under your roof, it's almost impossible to evict someone in a graceful, guilt-free manner."

    Some preventive tactics:
    • "You're coming to town? Fantastic! A great new hotel just opened -- you'll love it!"
    • "Sorry, the house is in no condition for guests right now."
    • "I can't wait to see you. Do you need recommendations on a good place to stay?"

  4. Say No to Taking On the Work for a Big Holiday Celebration
    Are you the family's Martha Stewart? The one who knocks herself out every Christmas and other holidays around this time to prepare an elaborate feast for the extended clan? 

    If festive entertaining leaves you frazzled, Breitman suggests a change of scenery. For example, say, "Everyone has been coming here for Christmas and other holidays around this time for years, but I need a break. Either someone else can do it or we'll all go out to a restaurant."

    If you still plan to host, but don't want to shoulder the entire burden, the word "tradition" carries extra clout during the holidays, Breitman says. Use it to your advantage. Tell your guests, "I'm starting a new tradition. This year, everyone will bring one dish for the meal."

    Because others are busy, too, "Make sure that they understand that no one has to make it from scratch," Breitman says. 

    It's fine if Grandma's soup came from the deli or your nephew shows up with store-bought dinner rolls. As Martha likes to say, it's a good thing.

SOURCES: Marc D. Skelton, PhD, PsyD, psychologist. Elaine Rodino, PhD, psychologist. Patti Breitman, author, How to Say No Without Feeling Guilty.

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on 12/7/2007 2007 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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