Overhauling Life to Overcome Holiday Stress A new survey asked people what stresses them most about the holidays. The answers: finances, memories of a dead loved one, and being too busy.

Overhauling Life to Overcome Holiday Stress

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You may not need a survey to tell you that holiday stress is rampant. But a group has gone ahead and done one anyway. Mental Health America asked more than 3,000 people what sort of anxieties they feel this time of year.

NPR's Joanne Silberner reports on what the survey found and what some people are doing about it.

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

Mr. JOHN PERRY: That meant that we went through all of the rush of decorating the house, arranging to spend time with friends, shopping, getting stuff in the mail to out of town relatives, all of those things.

SILBERNER: It was busy and stressful. But then they joined something called The Compact, a group of people who vowed not to buy anything new all year long. So Perry and Pichato will sponsor the purchase of farm animals in poor countries in the names of their nieces and nephews. And for their five-and-a-half-year-old son Ben, Perry says -

Mr. PERRY: We'll find him a few toys, always secondhand. He's completely used to the secondhand drill now. He won't be surprised when he gets a couple of toys under the tree that don't come in boxes and packaging.

SILBERNER: By making homemade cards, giving more modest gifts and having a free artificial tree found on Craigslist, Perry and Pichato estimate they're saving $1,000 or $2,000. In the Mental Health America survey, money topped the list of holiday stressors.

Psychologist Raymond Crowell is vice president for Research Practices.

Mr. RAYMOND CROWELL (Research Practices): Forty percent of them were more stressed by the issues of finance around the holiday time. The second was that about 37 percent of Americans feel stressed by memories of loved ones who've passed away, and lastly, having too much to do causes stress for people during the holidays, not surprisingly.

SILBERNER: Crowell has come up with his own cure for having too much to do.

Mr. CROWELL: I do about 80 or 90 percent of my shopping over the Internet. It keeps me out of the stores, away from the crowds.

SILBERNER: Crowell says people shouldn't be shy about getting others to help out with cooking and cleaning, and wrapping presents. And people should take some time for themselves. The stress that comes from memories of a lost loved one isn't so easily handled.

Mr. JOHN SHEEHAN: The first Christmas after Tara died was very, very difficult.

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

Mr. SHEEHAN: We have gone from four years ago not wanting to celebrate it to this year, trying to get back to as normal as we can, you know, with decorations and gifts and getting the family together.

SILBERNER: Sheehan is active in a group called Compassionate Friends, a self help group for families that have lost a child. He says families should resist outside pressure to go right back to normal. They'll figure out when they're ready to celebrate again.

Serious illnesses can also transform holiday celebrations. The Osbornes family in Washington State used to have big Christmases with aunts and uncles, friends, and grandma.

MS. BETH OSBORNE: It was a big family gathering. We would play the piano, sing Christmas carols and have a nice dinner.

SILBERNER: But her father nearly died after Christmastime surgery four years ago. Her mother couldn't face a big Christmas again. So now, it's just Beth and her mom and dad. And -

BETH: Now, we actually do Christmas around an iron sunflower that's from my dad's sunflower garden.

SILBERNER: Meanwhile, John Perry and his partner Rob Pichato have taught their son, Ben, that you don't have to buy everything you see. As for the trains Ben loves at the toy store, Rob Pichato says -

Mr. PICHATO: We would say well, okay, we'll go and visit the trains, but we're not going to buy them.

SILBERNER: He says little Ben enjoys just looking.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

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