12 ways to destress amidst holiday madness

By Melody Warnick

The most wonderful time of the year, huh? So why do the holidays sometimes feel like a month-long panic attack? "During the holidays, people have such high expectations for things to be perfect," says Jon Abramowitz, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In other words, we take on too much, then feel anxious and stressed out when reality doesn't measure up to the flawless fantasy in our heads.

The best way to dodge holiday stress: Take a time-out. A break from the hubbub re-energizes and refocuses you, making you able to avoid holiday stress (or at least handle it better). Plus, it doesn't take much time. Whether you have 15 minutes or just one, here's how to catch a break that will restore your sanity and your ability to savor the season.

15 Minutes

Be a uni-tasker. Even if you're a veteran multitasker, taking on too much at once can make you feel frenzied over time. So when you hit the next semi-enjoyable item on your to-do list-mixing up a batch of cookie dough, say, or stringing popcorn for the tree-drop everything else and focus your attention on the task at hand: what it feels, smells, sounds and/or tastes like. "You're still getting something done, but by giving yourself permission to be fully immersed in the experience, you're mentally recharging yourself," says Kate Hanley, author of The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide: 77 Simple Strategies for Serenity. "It's like meditation in motion."

Create a holiday playlist. Nothing makes you feel merry and bright faster than seasonal songs, from "Winter Wonderland" to "Silent Night," and with good reason: Research shows that listening to music can crank down stress hormones, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and kick your anxiety to the curb. So make it easy to listen to holiday songs by creating a playlist of your favorites in iTunes, then playing it in the background while you wrap gifts. Or go to Pandora.com and tune into one of their holiday stations, like Peaceful Holidays or Swingin' Christmas.

Make friends with Frosty. Maybe you haven't built a snowman since you were a kid, but making a miniature Frosty not only gives you an instant creative outlet, it provides enough pulse-quickening activity to make you feel good. "When you exercise, your body produces endorphins, which are the 'happy' chemicals in your brain," says Dr. Abramowitz. "You'll come back inside with a different mindset." Plus, that snow sentinel on your front walk will be a season-long reminder to loosen up and have fun before the holidays melt away.

10 Minutes

Focus on the vision. Think about the three holiday traditions you love most, like lighting the Chanukah menorah or singing Christmas carols with your kids. Pencil those things in your calendar, and let go of the rest. "What stresses us out is that we don't take the time to say what we really want," says Linda Hedberg, a Minneapolis life coach who conducts workshops on making the holidays less stressful. "Women need to make plans based on their vision, and get rid of the stuff that doesn't fall into that vision."

Speed-read. Curling up with a good book can be the ultimate winter luxury, but if you don't have time for an extended tête-à-tête with a novel, try something short and sweet, like a few poems a day, or a couple of pages of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Better yet, sign up for DearReader.com, a service that e-mails you a daily excerpt of fiction, nonfiction, romance or other genre of your choice. You get to enjoy literary downtime without any pressure to read ahead.

Organize something. It's not as crazy as it sounds, says Beverly Coggins, a professional organizer in Stow, Ohio, and author of the 1-2-3…Get Organized series. When life feels out of control, setting a silverware drawer in order or whipping the gift-wrap box into shape leaves you feeling like you've taken the reins again-and that can unload stress.

5 Minutes

Take a shortcut to joy. Your regular schedule may have gone out the window when family dropped in, but that doesn't mean you have to abandon what you love. Just do a super-quick version of it. Turn your normal leisurely chat with your best friend into a quick morning check-in, or skip hanging out at Starbucks but grab a latte to go. "Figure out what gives you joy and commit to doing it," says Katrin Schumann, coauthor of Mothers Need Time-Outs, Too.

Throw open the curtains. According to a recent University of Washington study, gazing out at the natural world lowers your heart rate, even when you have to deal with stress-inducing situations. To bring some serenity inside, decorate with natural finds. Ditch the plastic wreath in favor of a real one, or stack pinecones in a glass vase for a quick centerpiece.

Press here for peace. Feeling flustered? Sneak into the bathroom during the festivities and try this quick acupressure move, called the Sea of Tranquility, to send a "calm down now" message to your brain. Find the small, slightly tender indentation in the center of your breastbone. With three fingertips, press down gently for two minutes, then gradually release the pressure. The acupressure not only helps you deepen your breathing, which relaxes you, but it naturally releases tension, says Hanley. "I love that it's called the Sea of Tranquility," she says. "It reminds you that you have this inner calm that you can access at any time."

1 Minute

Take a mistletoe moment. Physical affection has been shown to increase your body's levels of oxytocin and dopamine, hormones that reduce stress, so grab your honey and start smooching. Even if you're not feeling frisky, try cuddling for a while; simply touching hands can make the stress hormone cortisol melt away. "When we have strong relationships, we are buffered against the effects of stress," says Kory Floyd, PhD, professor of health and family communication at Arizona State University. "It doesn't mean we don't have stress, but we tend not to overreact."

Create your own calm. Decide on one word that describes the holiday season you want to have this year; it could be Peace, Joy, Love, Family or Serenity. Write it on an index card and tape it to your bathroom mirror. When things get hectic, a glance at your guiding word will remind you of what you really want-and make it easier to cut loose anything that's distracting you from your goal.

Say it ain't so .Yes, you want your holidays to be perfect, but no matter how much you plan (and worry), something will go wrong. Meals get burned, kids make messes, relatives argue, gifts miss the mark. Instead of freaking out, repeat something that reminds you that imperfection is OK, like It is what it is or Life happens. "A moment of self-talk helps us turn off the spigot of thoughts that constantly tell us we're not doing things right," explains Schumann. "It reminds us that the holidays aren't about being perfect. It's a time to laugh, be with family and share memories."

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