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Stress and the Holidays: Coping Skills for Adults on the Autism Spectrum

The holidays often bring an unwelcome guest: stress. And it's no wonder since the holidays present a dizzying array of demands like parties, shopping, baking, cleaning and entertaining, just to name a few. But with some practical tips, people with Asperger's (high functioning autism) can minimize the stress that accompanies the holidays – and they may even end up enjoying the holidays more than they thought they would.

How to prevent holiday stress:

1. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 5 minutes alone without distractions can refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Take a walk in the evening and gaze at the stars. Listen to soft music. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner peace.

2. Before you go shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to that budget. Don't try to buy happiness with a ton of gifts. Instead, donate to a charity in someone's name, give homemade gifts, or start a family gift exchange.

3. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to your expectations. Set aside resentments until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get angry or upset when something goes awry. Chances are they're feeling the effects of holiday stress as well.

4. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently stressed out or depressed, plagued by physical aches and pains, unable to sleep, irritable and disheartened, and unable to face everyday chores. If these emotions last for a while, talk to a mental health professional.

5. Saying 'yes' when you should say 'no' can leave you feeling angry and resentful. Friends and coworkers will understand if you can't participate in every project or activity. If it's not possible to say 'no' when your employer asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.

6. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends, etc. Plan your menus, and then make your shopping list. This will help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten items. And be sure to get assistance from others for party preparations and cleanup.

7. If you feel lonely or isolated, find some community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Also, volunteering your time to help others is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.

8. Don't let the holidays become a free-for-all. Over-indulgence only adds to your anxiety and guilt. Have healthy snacks before holiday get-togethers so that you don't go overboard on sweets, cheese, wine, etc. Also, continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity.

9. The holidays don't have to be perfect. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change too. Choose a few rituals to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones (e.g., if your adult child can't come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, like sharing pictures, emails or YouTube videos).

10. If someone close to you has recently died or you can't be with loved ones, realize that it's normal to feel sorrow and/or moodiness. It's perfectly alright to take time to cry or express your emotions. You can't force yourself to be cheerful just because it's the holidays.

Don't let the holidays become something you dread. Instead, take steps to prevent the stress that can descend during this time. Learn to recognize your holiday triggers (e.g., financial pressures, personal demands, etc.) so you can combat them before they lead to a meltdown. With a little planning and some positive self-talk, you can find serenity and pleasure during the festive season.

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