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Easing holiday stress


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POSTED: Monday, November 23, 2009

National Geographic Explorer Elizabeth Lindsey is redirecting her energy this Christmas in an effort to consume less, reduce stress and adhere to her values. In the past her routine included a flurry of shopping for the perfect gifts, but now she wants to engage the season in a more meaningful way.

A visit to India earlier in the year inspired her to offer scholarships to a few young schoolgirls there. A small financial investment—the amount of money that quickly disappears on a single trip to the mall—makes it possible for them to complete a year's worth of education and take steps toward changing their lives.

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She has decided to share with her friends pictures and notes from these schoolgirls in holiday letters explaining that money previously spent on purchasing and wrapping material gifts is instead making a tremendous difference elsewhere.

“;That's my commitment this year,”; says Lindsey, a former Big Island resident now living in San Francisco. “;It makes my giving to each of my friends much more honest and authentic. It's just a quiet, modest way of reducing the degree of stress and applying (my energy) in a way that would be meaningful and purposeful. It's so simple. We all get lost in the holiday season and forget what it's all about.”;

She hopes others follow her example and dispense with obligatory gifts for her.

“;There's not one thing materially that I need from my friends and family except to know that they are happy and healthy. That's all I want. I don't want them to spend anything on me that could go to someone who could really use it. We are an unsustainable society on so many fronts. People have got to stop and really instill in their families—especially young children—the value of what love means. And love cannot be bought or sold.”;

REDIRECTING YOUR expectations and intentions during the holiday season is one way to reduce anxiety. But it's even more relevant this year when people are struggling financially, out of work or dealing with other kinds of loss.

A recent column in Time magazine analyzed the results from a nationwide poll about happiness. Writer Nancy Gibbs noted that most people indicated “;the voluntary downshifting and downsizing of the past year have come as a kind of relief.”; But it's a fact that happiness “;correlates much more closely with our causes and connections than with our net worth.”; Even though Americans have less money, about a million more people volunteered their time to a charitable cause this year.

So why not adopt Lindsey's approach or some variation of it? Encourage the whole family to volunteer somewhere locally, then send cards to your usual recipient list thanking them for liberating you to give something far better than a gift basket full of questionable food choices. It's a paradigm shift, to be sure, but it's worth a try.

Reducing the stress that builds during this time of year is essential to physical and mental health. Jay Williams, a Big Island resident and author of “;The 24-Hour Turnaround,”; says there are only two choices. You can alter your behavior, such as eating or drinking less at social functions; or you can use techniques to manage the pressure inherent in any given situation. Hosting a party? Maybe you stop and breathe deeply before everyone arrives, or decide that you won't worry whether the house is clean enough.

“;You change the way you look at it, and your attitude,”; she explains. “;If I don't feel like going to a party, I don't go. It's all about not placing so much importance on the things that aren't important.”;

Williams, who has a doctorate in exercise physiology and has worked for many years as a personal trainer to exclusive clients, says there are simple ways to make sure you feel better during the holidays. Paying attention to your food and alcohol consumption has a huge impact on how you feel, as does being around people you love. Studies indicate that surrounding yourself with friends and family you enjoy raises your oxytocin levels—an actual physiological response—which in turn creates good feelings.

Citing a medical study about the damage that long-term care givers suffer, Williams emphasizes the importance of monitoring and addressing worry and tension.

“;If we don't have the capacity to take care of ourselves, we can do huge aging (yes, it affects the way you look!) and disease damage to our bodies,”; she says. “;It's big—right up there below cigarette smoking.”;

But for some people, managing the gift shopping and party circuit are remote considerations. Rita Hunt, co-creator of When Is Now, an online support group for people coping with grief, remembers the eight-month period in which her father died of a heart attack and her 9-year-old son was killed in a car accident.

“;One of my (reasons for) giving back to the community was because I was helped so greatly,”; she says.

But you don't need tragedies of this magnitude to spiral into depression. “;We're all grieving in our own way. It's not business as usual or holidays as usual. How do we find the joy and the harmony? We're just a small organization that's saying, 'You're not by yourself.'”; (A public service announcement about When Is Now will air on local stations between Thanksgiving and New Year's to offer support; www.whenisnow.org; www.detours.us.com.)

Beyond surrounding herself with supportive friends who reminded her that she would get through each day (she asked them to show up at certain times), Hunt used music—a relatively inexpensive, accessible solution for everyone—as one form of sustenance.

“;Music is made to seem like it's not that big,”; she says, “;but it's huge.”; It also can serve as yet another technique to pull yourself out of the cycle of frenzy and obligation, and return a sense of calm to a frenetic time of year when it's easy to forget what really matters.