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Helping others during the holidays can reduce your stress

In any given week, I provide presentations on a wide variety of topics. Folks like me, who work for land-grant universities and have faculty responsibilities, educate across a broad range of subject areas.

My expertise is "family community health." A typical week might involve a morning presentation on "aging in place" and an afternoon panel discussion that examines depression in later life. The following day I may be scheduled to give a class on "managing memory difficulties" and then the next day lead a conversation on the new dietary guidelines.

Tonight I'm supposed to discuss "holiday stress," about which I do not know a whole lot other than I'm feeling some. And I really need to be on my game because the group I'm speaking to this evening has not experienced this level of stress before — the embedded, gnawing anxiety that comes from the fifth year of economic crunch around the holiday season. They deserve the best information I can offer. These families live at a Housing Authority complex and have had a grim 12 months.

Unsuccessful job searches, multiple chronic illnesses that cut across age and gender and financial resources that are, well, nonexistent. Their collective stressors go way beyond eating too much at a holiday buffet or not finding the perfect gift for a hard-to-please relative.

So, joined by several able Oregon State University Extension volunteers, I'm going to offer stress-reducing ideas, and then I'd like you to consider following our lead (more about that later).

First of all, we will bring food — healthful, nourishing food. Oregon-grown pears wedged out attractively on a plate and easy-peel mandarin oranges, hummus coupled with carrot and pepper strips and cinnamon-flavored pumpkin bread.

Research shows that people learn better and are more likely to retain the information they receive if they have food available. And adults learn by modeling — so we will show these folks how to create and enjoy these festive, nutrient-dense holiday snacks at minimal cost. Doing that is a gift in and of itself.

Instead of giving a presentation citing research on stressors during the holiday season, we will do some active problem-solving. My plan is to ask folks to identify something specific that bothers them over the holidays and allow the group to brainstorm solutions. I have seen this approach work well, and even a small number of people can generate a lot of incredibly useful ideas if the problem is clearly stated.

During the brainstorming process, the person with the problem can only listen — no qualifying or clarifying until the end. Then the individual with the problem gets to choose the solution that most appeals. And they are asked to formally "pledge" to give it a try over the following three weeks. And if that idea doesn't work out, they have a whole list of other possibilities (and another opportunity to pledge). Voila. People helping people help themselves.

Let's say you try this yourself. Let's say you have an elderly neighbor who is going to be alone for the holidays. You could decide to invite them over for some pumpkin bread — or even a full Christmas dinner. That's certainly a nice thing to do. But maybe you start by talking with them about the real issue — have a thoughtful discussion. Sometimes being alone for the holidays is not the actual stressor. The real problem might be, "My son in Toledo never calls me." Once you know that, what if you gathered a few neighbors to ponder possible solutions — ideas may surface that range from having all the neighbors call at designated times throughout the Christmas season to contacting the son yourself and specifying a time for him to call — or both.

Research suggests we reduce our own stress by helping people reduce theirs. Pledge to do that.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, ext. 210.