Most people look forward to the winter holidays, even though the celebrations create their own kinds of stress. This year, however, families may need to prepare with a personal version of "getting in shape" because Americans already have a stress load going into the holiday season:

--Could someone in my family be out of work soon?

--Could the economy get even worse?

--What's happened to honesty? Justice? Tolerance?

--Why do I feel like we're already at war?

"We have so many outside forces coming at us now," said Charlotte Shoup Olsen, family systems specialist with Kansas State University Research and Extension. "They're tough things to deal with, even if they aren't immediate concerns for us personally."

One of the most-studied topics in Olsen's field is the factors that tend to predict whether a couple will stay together. A factor at the top of every researcher's list: Couples turn to each other in time of stress.

As stress builds, however, some people start lashing out at the person(s) closest to them. Others withdraw like a turtle or erect an emotional wall within the family.

Either of these extremes is no real help to anyone. In fact, it can expose and worsen any flaws in a relationship, Olsen said.

Unfortunately, these extremes also can gain scope during the holidays--especially for those who already are struggling to cope. Holiday-stress buildup can lead to or inspire actions that take months or years to repair: Insults to in-laws and doting grandparents. Buying binges. Too-big hopes and out-of-proportion hurt and anger. Crying, criticism or silence around the roast turkey.

Heading off this outlook--"getting in shape" now--requires hard work, Olsen warned. By this year's holidays, the outcome could still be a work in progress.

Even so, she said, three parts of the job are essential to families' emotional well-being through all seasons in today's stressful world:

1. Change the one thing you can change--yourself.

2. Remember that small steps can add up to a journey in a new direction.

3. Talk "nice."

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