It's the most wonderful time of the year.
That is what a song says about the Christmas season, anyway. For some people, the holidays are the most stressful time of the year, fraught with long lists of things to accomplish to create the kind of Christmas found in a Norman Rockwell painting.
It is important to remember that this type of picture-perfect holiday has been fictionalized, says Northern Virginia therapist Susan Waters, who leads a workshop on surviving holiday stress.
In real life, woven in among the boughs of holly, are bills to pay, mall crowds to battle and relatives with whom to contend.
"The holidays seem to trigger unrealistic expectations," Ms. Waters says. "We want the holidays to be the way they `should' be. Everyone kind of has a storybook image of family, meals and giving. But normal life has interpersonal relationships and relationship problems. There is a lot of interaction with family members this time of year, and some people find that stressful.
"Others find they are alone, and that is stressful. Sometimes there is a lot of overindulgence - drinking, eating and spending money, things that make people fell bad about themselves. And there is a lot of running around, which can lead to physical burnout."
It could be that holiday stress is the fallout of Americans' busier lifestyles. Nearly 70 percent of women with children work outside the home, but still carry much of the responsibility when it comes to cooking holiday meals and purchasing gifts.
Some of the concepts that were created to make life easier - such as Internet shopping and retail promotions that begin before Thanksgiving - actually make it more difficult, giving consumers what is called "overchoice," says University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson, who studies the way Americans make use of time.
"The term, and the phenomenon of, holiday stress has grown over the last two decades," says Dr. Paul Rosch, clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College. He is also president of the American Institute of Stress, a nonprofit organization that studies the effects of stress.
"In 1974, there was not a single article on the topic listed in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature," he says. "A decade later, there were so many stories on the subject that it needed its own heading."
THE HOLIDAY BLUES?
Besides overloading family schedules, the holidays also have a way of highlighting what is missing - be it the lack of a significant other, a job change or the holiday magic that most parents remember from their own childhoods.
"My holidays at home were always fun when I was young," says Angel, a homemaker in Greenville, S.C. "But now it is the time of the year when I reflect on what I've done all year or what I didn't do. I go over another year of not fulfilling my New Year's resolutions. I also remember friends and loved ones whom I miss and can't see again. I get sad as I think of how things have changed."
However, Dr. Rosch says temporary sadness over the holidays should not be mistaken for depression, which is a serious, chronic affliction that lasts longer than the holiday season.
He also points out the myth that more suicides occur during the month of December. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that it is April, not December, that consistently has the greatest number of suicides. The Mayo Clinic also did a 35-year study of the residents of Olmstead County, Minn., (where the clinic is located) and found no increase in the number of suicides before, during or after the period from Thanksgiving to New Year's.
A more logical explanation for what is referred to as the holiday blues may have to do with seasonal affective disorder, the mood disorder that affects people when there is less daylight, Dr. Rosch says. The days before and after Christmas are among the shortest of the year. …