Stressed woman tired of gift wrapping


The holidays, with their family gatherings, crowded shopping malls and unpredictable weather, are a time of stress for many people. We talk to two stress specialists about tips and tricks to help you calm down a bit during this hectic time of year and also prevent undue stress at other times.

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  • Dr. Mary Lamia, clinical psychology and psychoanalyst in private practice in Marin County, CA
  • Paul Huljich, author of Stress Pandemic: 9 natural steps to survive, master stress and live well

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Dealing With Holiday Stress

 Gary Price: The holiday season is a chance to spend time with family and friends. It’s also a bit busy, and when you add to that the office parties, church events and your not-so-favorite relatives coming to town, it’s a wonder everyone doesn’t just head for the hills in December. Yes, it’s a stressful time of year as well as a happy one, so we asked two stress specialists about how you can assess your situation and hopefully nip anxiety and stress in the bud before it ruins your holiday. First, what is stress and what does it do to the body? Mary Lamia (luh mee uh) is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Marin County, California. She’s also a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley. She says there are not only a number of physical effects of stress, there are different types of stress as well.

Mary Lamia: When people experience stress they are usually overwhelmed by their emotions thereby affect the experience so they really can’t assimilate. And so they may have increased blood pressure, heart rate, inability to sleep. But there’s good stress, too. Good stress may manifest in the same way, except that people don’t want to get rid of it. Ask anyone who’s in love, or is having a torrid affair. Whether or not there is stress they are highly stressed, but they wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world.

Price: For this story, we’ll stick to the stress that we don’t want to have. Lamia says that the holidays bring with them not only joy, but unrealistic expectations of just how much joy we deserve.

Lamia: The holidays, psychologically make people uncomfortable and stressed because they really become aware of the disparity between the degree of happiness that’s theoretically available and the amount they can obtain. So you’re always balancing whether or not you’re getting what you really want to have during this time. It brings it into focus. What do we want? Or how close is our family? Or how related are we? Do we have what we desire? Usually our desire outruns fulfillment and that’s what stresses us out and makes us experience shame or guilt or disappointment as though we’re not good enough, deserving enough, or won’t ever get the happiness we desire. That becomes stressful psychologically. People tend to value happiness so much that it becomes self-deceiving. Researches have found that the more you value happiness, and we certainly do during the holidays, the more likely you’ll be to experience disappointment when you’re not.

Price: Paul Huljich (hew litch) was a successful organic food company CEO, and a survivor of extreme stress, that led to depression and mood disorders. He wrote about his experiences, research and his approach to dealing with the problem in his book, “Stress Pandemic: 9 Natural Steps to Survive, Master Stress and Live Well.” When stress hits, Hulich says many of us turn to bad habits to cope with the feelings.

Paul Huljich: According to the Mental Health America survey 45 percent – that’s one to four Americans — rely on eating to cope with stress. And 42 percent rely on alcohol, smoking, or drugs to relieve stress. The remainder is made up of gambling, sex, even addiction to the Internet. So when we fell vulnerable we do reach normally to destructive coping mechanisms and we need to be aware of it, because you need to replace them with constructive coping mechanisms.

Price: Hulich says that overeating and poor nutrition can zap energy and worse – become addictive.

Huljich: When we’re under stress we crave sugars and fats. They are very addictive. As soon as you withdraw from them you have withdrawal symptoms. You actually built up that wonderful resistance to crap food over time, and it usually takes around 30 days. Then it’s part of you, it becomes part of your character, your way of life, your lifestyle. So to break that, to break the cycle you need to understand it’s going to take 30 days of consistently saying no.

Price: Drinking is another activity that people believe will relax them during times of stress. Dr. Lamia says that self-medication with alcohol or drugs doesn’t really help and can lead to bigger problems down the line.

Lamia: Having a drink just like eating a piece of pecan pie may feel good at the moment or may feel good a little while longer, but does it really relieve stress? No. Maybe temporarily it’s a drug that masks certain emotions – loneliness, sadness, emptiness, absolutely masks that, but only temporarily. And we also know that people who indulge in a lot of wine often have sleep disturbances. So in the end it will make them far more stressed than calm.

Price: Lamia recommends becoming more active – switching up those bad habits with some beneficial exercise.

Lamia: It’s a great anxiety and distress reliever and it’s important that people keep that up. Also during the holidays people eat more or they indulge more or they make that okay, and that does not make them feel good. It actually makes them feel bad about themselves. So it’s important to do everything in moderation and keep hold of yourself. Continue to exercise and treat your body well, treat yourself well, so that the holiday doesn’t make you feel bad, it makes you feel good.

Price: Of course, there’s always the chance that you’ll come up against the naysayers during the holidays. You know, those people – maybe relatives – who don’t want you to say “no” to another drink or piece of pie. They put you into a stressful position just when you’re trying so hard to avoid it. Huljich says you need to prepare in advance for these situations and be prepared to stand your ground.

Huljich: You have to understand, have awareness that when you’re restyling yourself or rebuilding yourself, people even who love you or who you work with might feel threatened by the new person you are becoming because you’re not as controllable, you’re not as agreeable, maybe you’re not saying yes to certain things, you’re now saying no. What you have to understand is this is about you, not them. It’s about you reasserting the wonderful person you are. It’s about you reasserting the boundaries. It’s about them understanding that if they love you and if they respect you, they will want to endorse and embrace your wishes because this is the person you want to be. 

Price: What if you just fly off the handle? If you can’t keep your cool during a get-together? Is counting to ten a good strategy?

Lamia: Stopping and counting to 10, for example when one is angry, it could only because it stops you from behaving impulsively. Anger is interesting. Anger is designed to protect the self. It’s actually a good emotion and sometimes people should be angry because anger tells you that your goals are blocked and that you need to do something different. It doesn’t tell you to hit anyone or throw anything, although people do those things. Anger is simply a signal that alerts you to take action that’s self-protective. It’s misunderstood and misused, and people get caught up in the way it makes the feel and think.

Price: Worrying about these people as well as doing all the usual running around that you have to do during the holidays can cause some very late nights. Lamia says that burning the candle at both ends is a poor way to combat stress.

Lamia: I always tell my patients who aren’t sleeping enough, sleep is the number one cause of depression in many people, and anxiety – not sleeping enough can end up making you feel very depressed or anxious. Sleep is very restorative, it’s very important. And getting a good night’s sleep is essential to good health. So you may be working like crazy during the holidays, but making sure you get enough sleep is essential.

Price: A stress-free holiday might be too much to expect in these days when everyone is expected to work a little later, and when phone calls, e-mails and the Internet have our attention 24-seven. However, our guests say that armed with realistic expectations of what the holidays should bring, the resolve to eat and drink in moderation and some strategies at hand to fend off the bullies, you can enjoy a less stressful, happier time with family and friends.

Information on Paul Huljich and his book, “Stress Pandemic,” is available at stress To learn more about Dr. Mary Lamia, her work and her books, log on to Mary You can find more information about all of our guests, at viewpoints Archives of past programs can also be found there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.