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(MCT)—Much like peppermint mochas and hearing “Santa Baby” on repeat, holiday stress has become an inevitable hallmark of the season, with the frazzled shopper and lonely divorcee practically fixtures in the scene.

But stress is nothing to take lightly. Strained minds and bodies can aggravate family tensions, deepen depression and lead to illness.

So next time you find yourself stewing behind a coupon-clipping customer in a rowdy toy store line, do your health a favor and smile.

“In any situation, just stop, take three breaths, smile at yourself, then respond,” said mind-body guru Deepak Chopra, author of 65 books on spirituality and creator of the new meditation video game “Leela.”

“I let my liver and my heart and stomach smile at the same time,” Chopra said. “The act of smiling will shift your mood entirely and shift the conversation.”

Most holiday stress stems from a few basic sources, Chopra said.

Being around family can trigger traumatic childhood memories for some people, prompting mood swings and depression. Others overindulge in sugar and alcohol, throwing their bodies for a loop. For many, the holidays become a subconscious competition of who can enjoy them most.

“Who’s getting more presents, who has more attention, who is spending more money?” Chopra said. “We live in a society where our validation comes from the outside, and that is very difficult to overcome because people have been conditioned to care how people think of them.”

One tool to counteract the pressures, Chopra said, is to take a few minutes every morning to close your eyes, pay attention to your heart and declare how you wish to experience the day—or, more important, how you wish others to experience it.

“Ask yourself, ‘How can I make people happier today?’” Chopra said. “If we shift our awareness to other people, if we really listen to them and show them attention, affection and appreciation, it calms us.”

The implications of unchecked holiday stress can be ugly.

Stress hormones rearrange energy in the body to help you meet an emergency, dampening your immune system, heightening cardiovascular arousal and fixating your attention on the thing that’s upsetting you, said Daniel Goleman, author of “Emotional Intelligence.”

So when you arrive to a family gathering stressed out after a hectic day of traveling, and a relative says something you might normally brush off, you instead snap because you lack the flexibility to reach for a more reasonable response, Goleman said.

If you carry that stress around for days or weeks, there’s a lot more than family harmony at stake. Your health can suffer as well, Goleman said.

Studies have found that heart attack deaths start increasing around Thanksgiving, climb through Christmas and peak New Year’s Day, before falling again—a phenomenon that was dubbed the “Merry Christmas Coronary” and “Happy New Year Heart Attack” in a 2004 article in the journal Circulation. Researchers, who controlled for cold weather, identified several holiday culprits for the increased cardiac mortality, including emotional stress, overeating and boozing, toxins from wood-burning fireplaces and holiday-induced hospital delays.

Even healthy people in bright spirits can suffer drains from holiday expectations.

Though the predominant emotions around the holidays are happiness and love, two-thirds of people still say they feel fatigued or stressed, and half are irritable, according to a 2006 survey conducted by research firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner on behalf of the American Psychological Association.

Among the 38 percent of people who say they feel more stressed during the holidays than at other times of the year, most blame lack of time and money, and gift-buying pressures. Work is the greatest stress contributor, with most people worried it will leak into holiday celebrations or they won’t be able to get enough time off.

Women, who shoulder much of the shopping, cooking and decorating duties, and lower middle-income families, who have to stretch their dollars, are more likely than men and high-income families to feel holiday stress, the survey said. Women are also more likely to manage it through comfort eating, watching TV and doing other sedentary activities.

Parents in particular should mind their stress levels, as it can trickle down to the kids. Ninety-one percent of children say they can tell parents are stressed when they yell, argue or complain, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2010 Stress in America survey. This makes many kids feel sad, worried or frustrated, the study showed.

Goleman recommends daily relaxation exercises to train your mind to calm itself.

“The mind is a muscle,” Goleman said. By exercising it as you might your biceps, you are better equipped when stressed to launch the parasympathetic response, which slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure and gets you to a relaxed state. That in turn restores your body to full strength and frees your mind from the clutches of irritability.

More than just listening to music or watching TV, relaxation techniques must actively work the mind—as with deep breathing, deep muscle relaxation and breath count exercises, Goleman said. (His instructional CD “Relax,” at, offers six different relaxation methods.) He advises practicing 15 to 20 minutes daily.

Or, you can try viewing the families at the airport as your allies rather than your enemies, and smile.

“Anger is how we interpret what’s going on, not the situation itself,” Goleman said.

©2011 the Chicago Tribune
Distributed by MCT Information Services.