10 steps to head off stress at the holidays

Hal Barkley, director of Counseling in SMU's Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, talks about how to cope with families and stress during the holidays.

The Dallas Morning News

You giddily gear up for family time. You plan decadent meals; memory-swapping sessions; eggnog-downing contests; craft projects using gumdrops and hot-glue guns.

And then, you're together five minutes and wonder how in the world you'll keep from going insane the next five days.

"You're out of your routine; that's part of the trouble," says Dr. Hal Barkley, director of counseling at SMU's Legacy Program. "There are more people in the house than normal; there's the intensity of dealing with the physical presence."

Plus there's the matter of – like it or not – reprising your old role in the family.

"We have to relive things we would just as soon forget," he says. "Whatever role or script you have, and sometimes it's multiple, we get sucked into that, and for a lot it's unpleasant.

"Hang on. When you go back home, this is a great opportunity for you to create your new script, in your new role: Your new persona."

See why we asked Dr. Barkley to team with us here at Healthy Holidays Headquarters (HHHQ)? He's realistic, yet optimistic. Just the person to offer ways to thrive mentally, emotionally and physically over the holidays.

Forthwith, tips from him, from us, from the American Counsel on Exercise (ACE):

1) Create boundaries. Say you had an embarrassing nickname when you were a kid. Yet that pesky brother in particular keeps calling you Crusty, or whatever it was.

What to do? Call that punk – brother, we mean – beforehand. Tell him you're looking forward to seeing him, but you'd appreciate it if he wouldn't call you that, at least not in front of everybody else.

"Understand it's a habit," Dr. Barkley says. "Maybe they'll slip. Deal with what's reality."

2) Lower your exercise expectations. If you usually work out for an hour a day, be comfortable with a third to half that, the ACE folks tell us. Darn right those 20 or 30 minutes count. Plus they'll help you be less stressed.

3) Being alone is OK. Yes, you can quote us. Feel guilty about not loving every second of being surrounded by people 24 hours a day? What is wrong with you anyway? Not a darn thing; we'd think it odd if you didn't need some alone time.

"You need to get away, to rediscover yourself, to recharge your batteries," Dr. Barkley says.

He's not talking Aruba. He's just talking a walk around the block. Or a jaunt to the gym. Or use his trick: When his mom would run out of buttermilk, he'd say "Oh! I'll go get that for you!"

"Then I'd go to the store and take my sweet time," he says.

4) You can still love them even if they don't stay with you. You might even find yourselves a bit more enamored of each other.

"Some people bring their own RV or mobile home," he says. "That's where they stay. I always think maybe there's a reason for that. It gives them space. So does staying in a hotel rather than someone's home."

5) Focus on merely maintaining your weight. If you don't gain pounds, consider yourself successful, ACE says. If you crave divinity (we can't imagine why, but that's just us) go ahead and have a piece. One piece.

6) It's your house; you set the rules. If relatives tend to drink too much, talk to them beforehand, Dr. Barkley says.

"Confrontation doesn't have to be negative; it can be positive," he says. "It can be a setting of expectations."

You could say, for instance, that you will not be serving wine. Or that you will only serve it with dinner. Yes, drinkers want more and will often get their own, he says.

"You have to draw a line in the sand," he says. Certain family members may not end up coming to Christmas.

"There's a fine line, and every family knows where it is, which may cause consternation. That's the price you pay for change sometimes, and for taking care of yourself."

7) You don't have to eat any more than you want to eat.

"My grandmother used to say, 'You haven't eaten enough to – insert metaphor here,' " Dr. Barkley says. "But it's your body. It's not your grandmother's body."

Again, it's a matter of breaking a pattern. Before the meal is served, for instance, go to your mom or sister and say, "One thing I look forward to is coming here and eating your cooking. But I want you to know that this year, I'm going to try everything but will only have one helping."

"Say 'no thank you,' and maybe you have to say it two or three times," he says.

8) Create active traditions. Sledding after dinner isn't exactly a Dallas-esque option. But bowling could be. Or walking the streets to look at Christmas lights.

9) Make your meals last a long time. No, not by having those seconds you swore off in No. 7. But by eating dessert after a rousing game or charades or Twister.

10) Channel your frustrations altruistically. If you can't stand another minute – or even long before you reach that point – volunteer. Do it alone, or bring the family along.

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