By Hugh C. McBride

During the holiday season, stress and pressure are as inevitable as tacky storefront displays and repetitive music on the radio. But that doesn’t mean that any of this has to ruin one of the best times of the year for you and your friends and family.

The following seven steps can help you respond to seasonal stress in a healthy and productive way:

1. MANAGE EXPECTATIONS – About that perfect holiday gathering you’re planning – you know, the one where everyone shows up on time, loves the food, agrees on every topic of conversation, and helps clean up before taking a group photo and leaving before they overstay their welcome? Yeah, well, that’s what we here in the reality-based world refer to as a “delusion.”

Planning for perfection does little more than ensure that you’ll be disappointed. Someone’s going to spill gravy on your heirloom tablecloth, the kids aren’t going to like every gift you give them, and Uncle Henry is probably going to tell everybody that embarrassing story from 1964 (again!). But if you plan for contingencies, expect the unexpected, and above all keep your expectations within the realm of the realistic, you can spend less time worrying about what went (or is about to go) wrong, and more time enjoying the many magical moments that are occurring right before your eyes.

2. STAY UNDER BUDGET – Once upon a time, managing your children’s holiday wish lists was as simple as limiting their access to the annual JC Penney Christmas catalog. But in today’s highly commercialized online environment, there’s little hope of convincing your young ones that there really aren’t any new and exciting toys out there this year.

What you can do, though, is remember that holiday happiness isn’t proportional to the amount you spend, and that the stress of spending beyond your means can have a negative impact on your ability to enjoy the season. Establish a budget for all aspects of your holiday plans – gifts, decorating, entertaining, and anything else you’ll be doing – and then stay within your self-imposed limitations. Staying within your financial means may encourage you to be a bit more creative (which is rarely a bad thing), and should help you focus on what’s truly important – spending meaningful time with those you love.

3. EAT WELL – Note that this section is titled “eat well,” not “eat a lot.” You’ll likely have ample opportunity to indulge during the holiday season, but know in advance that few excesses are free of repercussions. If you’ve worked all year to manage your weight and improve your health, don’t abandon your healthy lifestyle in the name of “celebration.”

Continuing to eat well throughout the holiday season will help you remain strong, healthy, and guilt-free – three qualities that can come in handy when the inevitable last-minute complication demands your most level-headed and effective response.

4. EXERCISE – Yes, you’re going to be busy (those gifts aren’t going to buy and wrap themselves, you know). And yes, it’s getting darker earlier – and staying colder longer – than it did just a few weeks ago. But the benefits of sticking with your exercise regimen can far outweigh the risks associated with “sacrificing” the time that you might be spending untangling another strand of lights or searching the Internet for the perfect tofu-turkey recipe.

In addition to helping keep your body fit and your mind sharp, getting an adequate amount of exercise also forces you to take a “timeout” from the holiday hustle and bustle. The effort you exert on your bicycle, treadmill, or weight bench helps to dissipate stress, prepare you for the challenges that await, and remind you that you can’t be of service or assistance to others unless you take care of yourself first.

5. VOLUNTEER – Regardless of how commercialized the holidays become, don’t forget that among the primary reasons for the season are compassion and generosity. Focusing on others can help you put your own stresses in proper perspective, and can set a good model for those around you. “Bake cookies, go caroling, give to needy families, or volunteer. Explain to your kids that there are a lot of families who don’t have as much as they do,” University of Iowa counseling professor Ann Vernon advises in an article on the Family Education website.

The benefits of volunteerism aren’t limited to those who are being served. According to an April 2007 report by the Corporation for National and Community Service, individuals who volunteer experience “lower mortality rates, greater functional ability, and lower rates of depression later in life than those who do not volunteer.”

6. SLEEP – Failing to get enough sleep has been associated with a wide range of physical and emotional problems, including high blood pressure, irritability, memory lapses, and a diminished ability to concentrate. And unless you consider yourself to be at your best when you’re forgetful, angry, and unfocused, you can easily see how failing to get enough sleep can compound the stress that you place upon yourself and those around you. Combined with a healthy diet and adequate exercise, getting an appropriate amount of rest is an essential ingredient in the most important holiday recipe of all – the one that puts you at your physical, mental, and emotional best.

7. ENJOY! – The holidays can be a time of great happiness and togetherness, and each of the steps in this list is designed to help you have the most fulfilling experience. But none of these words of advice will be of any value if your focus on the details causes you to lose sight of the proverbial “big picture,” so be sure to take the time to bask in the joys of living the healthiest and happiest life you can.