Holiday survival guide

Stress is just another present we open this time of year
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  December 8, 2010

It used to be so easy. It used to be all egg nog and hanging your favorite ornaments, sugar cookies and Yule logs, candle-lighting and leaving carrots for Santa's reindeer fleet. It used to be "Dreidel, Dreidel," "Little Drummer Boy," and "Silent Night" and not the up-tempo electro abominations they play at the malls. It used to be that uncontainable excitement, that giddy anticipation, the magic of all those twinkling lights. It used to be Christmas dawn wake-ups and scrambling to see what was under the tree, fire blazing, parents beaming, jolly, merry, peace on Earth.

Or maybe it wasn't like that at all. Maybe you were too wrapped up in your new Nintendo systems and My Little Ponies to notice a gloom cloud over the adults around you. Regardless of how the holidays of your youth went down — idyllic Norman Rockwell festivals of light and love, or dreary times with strange cousins and stressed grown-ups — it's no secret that this time of year can weigh on even the jolliest and most social soul.

And the reasons for that are legion.

It can be as simple as the weather. "The time change, the fewer daylight hours, that's a tough transition at the start of things," says Robert Wyatt-Jameson, a 33-year-old former Portlander now living in Dorchester, Massachusetts. "Christmas is a gateway into a couple months where I'm likely to feel a little bit desperate."

He also talks about the change from a kid's-eye-view of the holidays to what it is to experience it as an adult. "As you get older, there can be this melancholy. Something that used to feel so wonderful now feels a little polluted. Stuff you didn't know about when you were younger — in a lot of ways it's just about separating people from their money. There's this obligation to buy gifts and engage in rampant capitalism."

Rebecca Hoffmann Frances, the vice-president of community and trauma services at Community Counseling Center (343 Forest Ave, Portland; 207.874.1030;, which offers a variety of prevention, education, treatment, and wellness programs for children, adults, and elders, highlights the financial burden of the season as a major source of anxiety for people. "The costs of gifts, travel, food — these put a strain on budgets. Finances pose a lot of stress on people." She urges people to set a budget before the holiday hemorrhage starts in earnest. "That last minute scrambling can be very stressful both for yourself and for your checkbook. Deciding how much money you want to spend and sticking to that" can aid in avoiding finding yourself in the red at the start of the new year.

If money's one weight tugging us towards the blues, family proves another major anchor. It's a classic pattern: to return to your childhood home and time-traveling back to behaviors and feelings you otherwise left behind at the end of puberty. "For me as someone who hasn't started a family of my own," says Wyatt-Jameson, "I go back to a situation — my parents' house — that is both familiar and unfamiliar. I begin to occupy my old role in my family. I sleep in the bed I first masturbated in and I start to generally act like a dick. It's an uncomfortable moment."

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