Overhauling Life to Overcome Holiday Stress

Mental Health America asked more than 3,000 people what anxieties they feel at this time of year. The results showed that finances, missing a lost loved one and having too much to do were the top holiday stressors. Some Americans have found ways to avoid those stresses this season.

John Perry and his partner Rob Pichato of San Francisco used to go all out around Christmas.

"That meant that we went through all of the rush of decorating the house, spend time with friends, shopping, mail, out-of-town relatives, all of those things," Perry says.

It was busy and stressful.

Then they joined something called The Compact, a group of people who've vowed not to buy anything new all year long. Perry and Pichato will "sponsor" the purchase of farm animals in poor countries in the names of their nieces and nephews. Their 5-year-old son, Ben, will get second-hand toys.

By making homemade cards, giving more-modest gifts, and putting up a free artificial tree found on Craigslist, Perry and Pichato estimate they're saving $1,000 to $2,000.

In the Mental Health America survey, money topped the list of holiday stressors.

"Forty percent [of those surveyed] were stressed by the issues of finances over holiday time," says psychologist Raymond Crowell, vice president for research practices. "The second was about 37 percent feel stressed by the memories of loved ones who've passed away, and lastly, having too much to do causes stress over the holidays."

Crowell has come up with his own cure for having too much to do. He says people shouldn't be shy about getting others to help out with cooking, cleaning and wrapping presents. And people should take time for themselves.

The stress that comes from memories of a lost loved one isn't so easily handled.

Retired charity worker John Sheehan's daughter died five years ago from an eating disorder.

"We've gone from four years ago not wanting to celebrate to this year, trying to get back to as normal as we can, with decorations, and gifts and getting the family together," Sheehan says.

He is active in a group called Compassionate Friends, a national self-help group for families that have lost a child. He says he's learned that families should resist outside pressure to go right back to normal; they'll figure out when they're ready to celebrate again.

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