The holiday season is full of wonderful sights and sounds. Music speaks of loved ones embracing near a warm fire. Department stores brim with shoppers carrying festive, full shopping bags. And television commercials feature sweet, two-parent families opening sometimes lavish gifts around perfect Christmas trees.

While it’s beautiful imagery, it’s also very far removed from most people’s reality. Many people can’t be with loved ones during the holidays, others can’t afford to give the gifts they really want to give (but sometimes give anyway) and only half of all moms and dads are still married to each other.

The stark contrast between these idealized images and our own flawed realities can lead to unrealistic expectations, unnecessary stress and, ultimately, the blues when we fail to achieve anything approaching perfection.

Holiday blues can range from mild sadness during the holidays to severe depression. Symptoms include changes in appetite, sleep disturbances and irritability. They can also include physiological symptoms, such as digestive stress or headaches. The good news is that in most cases these blues can be avoided with some extra planning.

The key is to change the way you think about the holidays. Redefine your notion of the perfect holiday to include squabbling siblings, humble but thoughtful gifts and roaring fires enjoyed alone.

Changing the way you think can be difficult, but self-talk and affirmation can help. Catch yourself in negative thoughts — about yourself, how the holidays are going, your family interactions — and replace them with positive thoughts that reinforce the value in your new holiday model.

With your new frame of mind, you’ll have an easier time managing both your own and others’ expectations of you during the season. You’ll also have an easier time communicating with others about what they can expect of you — an important step in warding off guilt that can contribute to the blues.

It’s also helpful to anticipate troublesome areas. For example, if you’ve experienced loss in the past year through death, divorce or other life changes, accept that may make the holidays especially difficult and plan for it. You may find comfort in volunteering at a local charity, attending a religious service or other special plans.

Additionally, identify a special support person you can talk to when it gets especially difficult. Do this in advance and talk to that person about what you may need. Sometimes just knowing they are there will be enough to get you through hard times.

Finally, be sure to pay attention to your physical needs. High-sugar, high-fat foods are especially abundant during the holidays, and sleep can be elusive for people experiencing a lot of stress. Eating healthfully and exercising regularly will help you feel better and sleep better.

Avoiding the holiday blues is one of the best gifts you can give yourself, and that translates into a gift you give to others. So abandon others’ definition of the perfect holiday and build your own ideal. You’ll move peace and joy off your wish list and into a way of life.

As published in the December 2005 Edition of the Holmen Courier and Onalaska Community Life.