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Health

Holiday stress calls for an attitude adjustment

| Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The holidays are supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but for many people, they're also the most stressful.

People get stressed out because of over-scheduling, not getting enough sleep, expecting too much of the season and being perfectionists about gifts, decorating and entertaining, says Amit Sood, a stress-reduction expert and author of a new book, “The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living,” due Jan. 1.

Stress is caused by an excessive workload, lack of resources, lack of control or lack of meaning in what you are doing, Sood says. Excessive stress depletes you, fatigues you and demoralizes you, in addition to causing or worsening many medical conditions, he says.

The keys to stress reduction are creatively tackling your stressors, being present in the moment, having an attitude of gratitude, being kind to others and yourself and accepting people for who they are, says Sood, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He has taught the Mayo Clinic's stress-free living program to tens of thousands of people.

People often blame themselves for being so stressed out, but they shouldn't, he says. Your brain is wired to escape the present moment by going into a default mode that lets your mind wander. Most people spend half their day or more with a wandering mind, thinking neutral or negative thoughts that happen spontaneously, he says.

For instance, say you are planning a holiday party. You start worrying that your party won't be as good as a friend's party, and you fear something will go wrong, and you worry that people won't remember to come, he says. “The mind tends to take us toward the negative.”

When the mind is wandering, it is unguarded. It's on autopilot, thinking about relationships or unresolved issues, which Sood calls “the open files. It's like a record that gets stuck and repeats the same sound over and over again.”

The quality of your thoughts when the mind is in the wandering mode affects your level of stress, he says.

He suggests trying to cultivate more intentional thoughts.

“I can have intentional positive thoughts and nurturing emotions. Or I can have spontaneous unhealthy thoughts and negative emotions. The choice is up to me.”

To reduce stress, you need to have “the novelty, joy and curiosity that a child has and the kindness, compassion and wisdom of a learned sage,” Sood says.

For instance, greet your family and friends each time you see them like you haven't seen them for a month, he says. Children do this naturally, he says.

“Every time my 3-year-old daughter greets me, she finds me novel,” he says. “Every day, I'm interesting to her, and she doesn't try to improve me.

“Remember you have finite time with your loved ones, so temper the impulse to tell them what's wrong with them, at least for the first 10 minutes when you are together. You can enjoy someone or you can improve them, but you can't do both,” he says.

And look for silver linings. If something doesn't go your way, “focus on what went right — in what went wrong,” he says.

Lynn Bufka, a psychologist with the American Psychological Association, says people can break the pattern of letting their minds wander and learn to enjoy the present more, but it takes practice.

For example, if you are decorating the tree with your family and you start thinking about everything you need to buy at the grocery store, just grab a piece of paper, write it down and get back to enjoying the time with your family, she says.

Still, keep in mind that you can't be “100 percent in control of your thoughts all the time,” Bufka says. “We have to be willing to accept that thoughts will come and go.”

Sood suggests that you use five principles to generate more positive thoughts and emotions:

Gratitude. Acknowledge your blessings, small or large. He recommends that, before getting out of bed in the morning, you take a few minutes to think about five people in your life for whom you are thankful. Think about how they've touched your life in positive ways and send silent thoughts of gratitude to them, he says.

Compassion. Recognize and honor the pain and suffering of all. Try to heal with words and actions. “Pursuit of compassion gives us greater happiness than pursuit of happiness,” he says.

Acceptance. Play the hand you have, he says. Embrace life's uncertainties by letting go of the uncontrollable.

Higher meaning. Focus on who you are, why you are here and what the world means. You're an agent of service and love. You touch a part of the world and leave it a little better and happier than you found it.

Forgiveness. It's your gift to yourself and others. It provides peace and freedom.

The holidays should be a time rich in relationships, relaxation and recreation, Sood says. They should be about being extra kind to others and yourself.

About his stress-reduction program, he says, “I give you a money-back guarantee that if you apply these principles, you will have less stress. You will have greater happiness.

“You will save several hours a day because your mind won't wander as much. You'll have better sleep, better relationships. You'll have more energy at the end of the day. You will connect with your life better. You'll be more fully alive.”

Nanci Hellmich is a staff writer for USA Today.

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