A holiday advisory for your emotions

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If holiday festivities have shifted from your home to your children's, be ready to accommodate the change.

Seasonal celebrations can take you to new heights or put you in the dumps. Either way, it's good to prepare psychologically.

There is ample evidence that companionship, connectivity, and overall contentment reduce disease risk and extend life. So does it stand to reason that the approaching holiday season should provide a boost to your health?

Not necessarily, says Dr. Ann Epstein, clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "The holidays intensify feelings across the spectrum. On one hand, they magnify the feelings of anxiety, depression, and family discord that make holiday gatherings hard. On the other hand, for people who thrive on family contact and love to connect, they can be really fun," she says. Wherever you are on the emotional spectrum, there are a few things you can do to make the holidays more enjoyable.

Adjust your expectations

The pressure surrounding the holidays can be overwhelming. The media abound with tips for decorating, hosting festivities, preparing lavish meals, and giving gifts. Advertising depicts joy-filled family gatherings. If your holidays don't fit these images, you may feel as though you have failed, because it looks as though everyone else is having a splendid time.

Yet such images are often distortions of the real picture. A growing body of research indicates that holidays rarely match people's expectations for them—either for better or worse. In numerous similarly designed studies, researchers interviewed people both before and after a holiday. In the first interview they generally asked people how they expected to feel during an upcoming holiday; in the second, they asked how they had actually felt. In study after study, those who expected to feel great reported that their mood wasn't quite as high as they had anticipated. Similarly, people who expected to feel miserable hadn't felt that bad.

Make accommodations for change

Holidays can also be stark reminders of changes in your life that come with age. You may not be able to contribute as much as you once did to the celebration. You may find that the center of festivities has shifted to your children's homes. Although your children might not do things exactly the way you did, you may enjoy letting them take charge. Forming realistic expectations can go a long way in helping you adapt to life changes.

Narrow your focus

"Holidays can arouse feelings of ambivalence in most of us," Dr. Epstein says. It's normal to dread some aspects of the approaching season while eagerly anticipating others.

She suggests focusing on the one or two things that you associate most positively with the holidays, whether going through family albums or enjoying seasonal music. Doing so is likely to relieve stress and unlikely to leave you with regret and disappointment.

Opt out if you want to

It may help to be prepared for things that have marred your holidays in the past, Dr. Epstein advises. If the holidays are associated with a loss that is still fresh—a death, divorce, family estrangement—don't feel obligated to celebrate exuberantly. You don't want to find yourself en route to family festivities but desperately wishing you were home with a good book. Instead, have a Plan B, which might include spending less time at family gatherings, finding a less emotionally fraught way to observe the season, or even declaring a holiday hiatus for a year. If you've been seeing a therapist, it's a good idea to discuss your expectations and anxieties and learn how to make room for your emotions and how to regulate them.

Harness the holiday spirit

If you are one of those who are fueled by the energy of the season, enjoy! While you're celebrating, you may also be extending your life. According to a review of 35 studies on the relationship of emotional well-being to longevity, such feelings as positive mood, joy, happiness, vigor, and energy are associated with lower death rates, not just in healthy people but also in people with chronic disease.