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By SUSAN ASCHOFF
He descends while you're squirting tiny frosting eyes on snowmen cookies after midnight, or as Uncle George pontificates on his politics at the family dinner. He sneaks in with the multipage credit card statement. He pounces when the ticket agent says there will be a delay due to mechanical difficulties.
Instead of joy, stress and resentment surge to the fore. The season of light has turned dark.
Many people unwittingly put Scrooge on the guest list themselves. They have unreasonable expectations about how much they can do. They think annoying relatives will become delightful. They fail to shape a holiday that will make them happy, say mental health experts.
This year carries the added stress of living with vulnerability and fear after the September terrorist attacks and amid an ongoing war in Afghanistan. Some are afraid to fly, others to go to a crowded shopping mall. And as a shaky economy threatens people's jobs and retirements, the president of the United States himself urges Americans to spend for the good of the country.
Take a seat, Scrooge. This one's made for you.
"You can choose. If it feels right, go ahead and do it," says Dr. Kathryn Dies, a psychologist at Morton Plant Mease Health Care in New Port Richey.
"As a nation, we have become much more aware of family and friends. We'd gotten cavalier" before the attacks, she says. "Hopefully, we're going to have an increase in the importance of family rather than magnitude of gifts.
"When you begin to pay attention," Dies says, "you have the potential for a healthier lifestyle."
The path to a saner holiday season is the same as it has always been, she and others say.
Simplify. And prioritize.
"Really look at what you do and see if it gives you any joy," says Pam Williams, who with partner Marci Moore coaches groups and individuals in workshops on managing financial, life and Christmas stress.
"You have to make choices. It might be celebrating the birth of Christ. Maybe it's spending time with family and friends. If you want to stimulate the economy, perhaps you can buy food and clothing for the needy," says Williams.
"Set a couple of goals, a concrete plan. Then be aware of it throughout the holidays."
Suzanne Ragan found herself stressing over traditions she no longer believed in. A live Christmas tree only made her wonder if a tree should die for her celebration. Shopping meant going deeper into debt, says the 37-year-old, to buy things for people they didn't need or appreciate.
"I was at a crossroads. I wanted to get in touch with reality and a little less with commercialism."
Ragan took one of the three-hour workshops offered by Williams and Moore, who are based in Seminole. Called "Unplug the Christmas Machine" and based on the book of the same name by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli, the sessions begin with participants considering holidays past, then imagining their fantasy holiday and devising a plan to make it happen.
"Instead of going to big parties with lots of people, I'm spending more time with friends in small groups," says Ragan, a St. Petersburg yoga instructor. "We don't exchange gifts. We don't spend money on each other. We spend time."
If the season's pressure comes from doing -- decorating, cooking, cleaning, church and school obligations -- sit down with the entire family to talk about which traditions are important to each member, says Dies, and which aren't worth the trouble.
"You don't have to make 27 kinds of cookies," she says.
If one family member, typically Mom, is doing the bulk of the work, divide the tasks. Everyone can make something for the holiday dinner. If guests are coming, make it a potluck, says Dies. "Then it becomes a time of sharing rather than one person feeling trapped."
If the calendar is filling with social functions when you'd prefer to spend time with your children, then RSVP regrets.
If a pile of presents brings months of financial worries, rethink the meaning of giving.
"A spectacular gift," says Dies, "is a letter to someone letting them know they have touched your life. It far exceeds any purchased gift."
"You don't spend more than you have," says Williams.
"My family has sort of evolved over the past few years," says Moore. "We decided we wanted to exchange presents, so we went with $5 garage sale (finds). It was really fun. But people kept having kids. The family kept getting bigger.
"This year we're drawing names" with a $25 limit per gift, Moore says.
The exchange helps keep their extended family in touch without becoming an onerous responsibility.
Perhaps, amid all the holiday togetherness, a moment's peace is what you desire most.
"Maybe you wake up 30 minutes early to have some solitude or (use) your lunch hour to take a walk," says Williams. "If you don't plan for that kind of time, you won't have it."
When priorities are set, post No. 1 on the refrigerator or in your calendar as a constant guide for making choices throughout the season, says Williams.
Since she began making choices, Ragan says, she has gotten the holidays "down to what I care about, instead of getting dragged through it.
"I think it's important to make choices that are good for you and the people you love -- you never know what will happen," if you will have a next time, says Ragan.
The September attacks reminded countless families that loss can come on a day when saying goodbye is as ordinary as a quick peck before bolting out the door to work and school.
For those who have recently lost a loved one, or who have family members called to military duty, the holidays this year may prove emotionally overwhelming. They, too, need to make choices, experts say.
"If there's going to be an empty chair at the table, consider having your dinner at the park or the beach. Change the setting. Go as a group to serve a meal at a shelter," says Dies.
If a loved one lives far away and cannot travel this year, set aside money and time for a long phone visit.
The holiday season makes some feel anxious and depressed, and "Many are feeling that way over events on Sept. 11," says Dr. Jack Gorman, professor and vice chairman for research at the department of psychiatry at Columbia University.
The majority of the population is "extremely resilient. Anxiety and fear are a measure of a normal feeling," says Gorman.
"But we have to be aware of people whose reaction is not normal, or exaggerated."
Depression makes sufferers withdraw: Simple interactions seem overwhelming, and isolation ensues.
"It is work to come out of it. You have to do things when you don't feel good" because activity makes you feel better, says Dies. "One of the things I've found in group therapy is when you put your own issues on hold and help someone else, it gives you control. It makes you recognize you don't have to totally succumb to the sadness and loneliness."
Dies says she has had patients who are chronically depressed tell her they feel better since the attacks: "The voices in their heads are not as as loud." Focusing outward, on the troubles of others, eases their preoccupation with their own.
Gorman says each of us must be alert for signs in those we care about that they are at risk for serious psychiatric problems.
"We may all be a little more careful about the mail we open," he says. "But people who won't fly in airplanes or won't go to the theater or can't enjoy their families are not responding in a legitimate way to risk," he says.
"If someone can't be with their family and friends, it means (they've) gone beyond normal expressions of sadness."
For such people, Dies suggests they take action, but set the bar low. Go to the grocery store and have a conversation with the checker. Look for a neighbor to greet during a walk. Calling 10 people for dinner is an overwhelming task. Dining with one friend is possible, says Dies.
"If you take baby steps, you eventually get where you're going and you maintain your balance."
Those who cannot cope should see a professional, experts advise.
Dies says she believes this holiday season will be much the same for many despite the terrorist attacks: We may ponder higher values but still get locked into destructive patterns of behavior through habit.
"I think," says Williams, "a lot of people will be looking for more meaning. Stop reacting. Turn off CNN -- we call it the worry channel. Take extra care of yourself: Get enough sleep, exercise. Eat right.
"Live in the moment."
Joy takes effort. Happiness requires choosing not to be swept up in unhealthful holiday "shoulds."
"If you're at Aunt Sara's looking at your watch," says Moore, "remember to look into Aunt Sara's eyes."
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