NEW YORK – It's supposed to be "the most wonderful time of the year" — but for many Americans, the winter holidays are anything but merry.
Indeed, psychologists attest that the season to be jolly can in fact be the loneliest and most stressful time of the year for many individuals — and more so due to the commercially-sponsored pressure to have a "happy" holiday.
"These times are supposed to be special, so when they're not, that creates problems," marriage and family psychologist Rita DeMaria said.
Some of the issues are obvious: the pressure to overspend, to please the kids and impress the neighbors, to eat and drink too much, attend every party, be in two places at once, buy perfect gifts for everyone, look our best.
But other stressors are more insidious. For example, ubiquitous Yuletide songs and greeting cards wish joy to us and our "loved ones." But in reality, many of us share our Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa dinner tables with drunken great-uncles, obnoxious second cousins and others we can't stand.
"We're often sitting around with people we're related to, but whom we hardly know — people we often wouldn't go out of our way to know if they weren't in our families," said therapist Marilyn Sorensen, author of The Personal Workbook for Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem.
And the problems sometimes go deeper than personality conflict.
"It's the elephant in the living room," Sorensen said. "Families don't address the 'issues,' and people are forced to go home and pretend nothing is wrong."
Social anxiety is also brought to the surface at this time of year. For extroverts, holiday parties are great. But they can be painful for those who are less gregarious.
"Introverts don't like big groups. They prefer to be with only a few people at a time," Sorensen said.
Loneliness is another issue. Sorensen said she prepares some of her clients "weeks in advance" for the holidays, which she says can be brutal for single and otherwise isolated people.
"One of my clients decided to not to spend the holidays with her family this year — they just don't treat her well. So I encouraged her to serve food at a mission and see friends later that day," she said.
And if you've lost a family member, the first year going through the holidays without that person is rough.
"Issues of loss are still around in year two or year 10 — but the first is the worst," DeMaria said.
But don't strip the halls of boughs of holly yet. David Borgenicht, co-author with Joshua Piven of The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Holidays, said winter really can be a wonderland if you're prepared.
"The holidays are a time when parents and grandparents tend to meddle, ask why you don't have a job, why you aren't married. What you should do is think of ways to divert the conversation — get them talking about themselves and their own lives," he said.
Borgenicht also has advice for the New Year's Eve blues. "If you're with friends, hug people at midnight. If you're alone, kiss a pet ... kiss Dick Clark ... kiss yourself in the mirror. Loving yourself is the first step to finding love."
Some of Borgenicht's other recommendations: Make big life announcements before the holidays; avoid excess; eat mood-boosting foods such as those containing tryptophan, tyrosine, B-complex vitamins and magnesium. (Also see Borgenicht's book for tips on handling some of the holidays' more comical hassles, such as serving burnt turkey, silencing carolers and removing your tongue from a cold pole.)
Therapists sum it up like this: If it's going to be traumatic to see your family or attend that office party, find the courage not to go. But if it's not, try not to be alone on the holidays.
"It's generally good to go to Grandma's, even if it's complicated," DeMaria said.