Family dinner

Expectations are at the root

of a lot of stress and sadness during the holiday season, said Holly Alastra, who is a registered dietitian and licensed clinical professional counselor.

The Serenity Prayer can be a good friend during the holiday season.

That is among the advice local “Living Well” columnist Holly Alastra has to offer for handling holiday stress and staying at least somewhat mellow.

Originally written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, The Serenity Prayer became widely known when it was adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

Expectations are at the root of a lot of stress and sadness, said Alastra, who is a registered dietitian and licensed clinical professional counselor.

“Some of ... (the distress) I see during the holidays,” she said, comes from the past. “It’s supposed to be a happy time of the year, but for some people it can be a very depressing time ... if they had a family life when there was a lot of conflict around the holidays. It became ingrained in their subconscious. The holidays themselves can bring up a time of depression and stress for no particular reason.”

Although you may have left that situation behind years ago, you may not be aware you’re still carrying the residual feelings inside.

“Some of the signs of stress are greater irritability, anger, insomnia, headaches and gastrointestinal problems,” she said.

“A number of problems can happen to anyone ... because we have a lot to do -- often from pressures we put on ourselves,” Alastra said. “We have this idealized version of how the holidays should be and typically that doesn’t play out in real life.”

“Stress and depression -- as far as mental problems -- those are the big ones that the holidays tend to exacerbate.”

“I think one of the big things is just self awareness,” Alastra said. “It’s knowing our patterns around the holidays.”

Look at past holidays, she advises, and notice what you did -- like maybe drinking too much.

“Some people are just fine with drinking alcohol," she said. "For others, a few drinks can trigger depression or anxiety.”

Notice what you’ve done in the past and then make a plan for how you can deal with it this year, she suggested. Instead of drinking alcohol, try seltzer or carbonated water.

“For some people, it’s continuing their exercise routine,” she said of what brings relief. It can “get those endorphins going in their brain and keep their mental health more positive by moving their bodies.

“Generally setting our intention of how things are going to go” can help, she said.

“Noticing how we are approaching any situation, whether it’s a party or the whole holiday season, are we thinking it’s going to be very stressful? Because we tend to create what we believe," she said.

She suggests being aware of your beliefs and setting a different intention. Perhaps that’s an intention to just be more open and loving and to accept people the way they are, she said.

Be aware if you’re expectations aren’t realistic, she added. For instance, you can’t control if your uncle is going to be at a dinner and be drunk.

“We can learn to cope with stress better because we think about things differently,” she said.

Relaxation techniques can be very helpful, she said. “Meditation can help ... or prayer can be a good one, or deep breathing or visualization.

“If we’re angry or stressed about being around someone, we get into these negative mental states that are really circular and keep going and going.

“Being able to stop that and take ourselves out of that -- that’s what meditation can do. You’re breathing and focusing on the breath or perhaps a mantra."

Visualization can take you to a place where you love to be -- perhaps on top of a mountain.

You can feel the wind blowing through your hair and see scenes of the sky ... put yourself there as much as you can with your senses, she said.

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Some people just want to zone out with a book or hobby -- but it doesn’t always stop their thought patterns.

“I think about the internal and external locus of control,” Alastra said. “Where’s the control located? Is it outside of you, or within you?”

To help people transcend stress or depression, she reminds clients to look at “what’s my part that I play in this?”

This goes back to The Serenity Prayer, she said. “Is it something I can change to make things better?”

If not, can you accept it?

Sometimes one needs to recognize that a certain person always provokes negative feelings and realize it just might be the other person’s problem, rather than blaming yourself.

It’s time to ask yourself: “Can I let it go and let it be?”

Alastra follows her own advice to deal with stress.

She likes to listen to positive and affirming podcasts, like Tara Brach, she said. “I try to meditate. I’m physically active, get regular exercise and take a daily walk.

“I try to focus on what’s right in life,” she said. “Gratitude -- focusing on what we are grateful for” can be powerful.

“When we’re filling ourselves up with what’s going right, it’s hard to be worried about what’s going to happen,” she said. “Stress is worrying about what is going to happen in the future. So just try to live in the moment and be grateful.”

For more information, visit Alastra’s website healthyandwonderfulyou.com.

Reporter Marga Lincoln can be reached at 447-4083 marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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