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Keeping your holiday workload at a manageable level is key to reducing stress. (Annette Tait/Special to Agweek)

Surviving the holiday whirlwind

The holiday season seems to get busier and more hectic each year. By now, most likely you've already attended at least one holiday concert or tree-lighting, and have a list of must-attend events — think kids and grandkids, local activities and gatherings with family and friends — that's longer than Santa's naughty or nice list.

While it seems at odds with a season of giving and good cheer, the holidays are also a time we need to learn to say "NO," simply for our own mental and physical health.

We've been there — we've baked cookies and bars for the kids' school programs and church events, brought potluck dishes to all sorts of gatherings, struggled over what to buy for the $5 gift exchanges, and addressed Christmas cards and letters right up to the big day. And we enjoy all these things — we love connecting with family and friends, and only the Grinch wouldn't smile at a preschool holiday program.

But for every holiday choir to be sung in, there are practices at least a few weeks prior to the concert. Kids programs require taxi service to and from school for rehearsals, at least for the older kids, and even the younger ones have costume or dress code requirements. It's a whirlwind of driving, shopping, baking, wrapping and trying to keep it all together at the same time. It's enough to drive a person crazy.

Not surprisingly, the best Christmas present you can give to those you love — and yourself — is your own sanity. Just like staying on top of your game on the job, keeping your holiday workload at a manageable level is key to reducing stress and — also hugely important — getting enough sleep.

Yes, we know you already know this. So do we. But do we do it?

Probably not. We feel obligated to say "yes" — it's an automatic response, even when we're searching the far corners of our brains for how in the heck we're going to get it done or for an acceptable way to decline.

Consider what's likely to come your way in the next few weeks and prioritize. Make sure the things that require prep work fit into your day and still allow getting enough sleep. Limit the number of events and activities to make sure you have a few evenings "off" each week.

And be realistic about added driving. Out here in the big open spaces, driving long distances on two-lane roads is how we get from point A to point B. And those roads aren't always clear and dry. Stress and sleepiness while driving can lead to spending the holiday in the hospital or worse.

There's no reason we can't be wholeheartedly in the season and still reduce our stress loads. That old saying "less is more" is very true — the best gifts are those we give of ourselves, with the recipient in mind. Secret Santa name exchanges are great for large families, especially as kids get older and start families of their own. Giving donations in adult siblings' and parents' names is another option. Choose a charity that's meaningful to each recipient.

And for the little ones, the "four gift rule" is a great strategy — one gift they want, one they need, one to wear and one to read. It's a practical approach that still includes something fun.

We're working to de-stress our holidays this year. How will you de-stress yours?

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