CHICAGO (CBS) — As we prepare for Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season, we know sometimes family gatherings can lead to stressful situations. Clinical psychologist Dr. Sheela Raja offers ways to recognize stress and how to cope.

1. What makes the holidays stressful and how common is holiday stress?

In one survey by the American Psychological Association, about 1/3 of us report feeling more stressed over the holidays—although we also report feelings of happiness, and warmth. One of the most difficult things about the holidays is the idea that we should have a “perfect holiday.” Many people worry that they don’t have enough money to spend on gifts, that they may not be at fancy parties, or that their family relationships may be strained. If you already struggle with anxiety or depression, you might feel like everyone else is having a great time, and there is something wrong or defective because you feel stressed.

Social media makes this worse because usually people only post their happiest moments–and if you have a mental health condition, you may be even more likely to think everyone else has a “perfect” life and you are the only one struggling. And, in northern climates, the lack of light and shorter days makes it even harder–particularly if you struggle with depression or seasonal affective disorder.

2. How do you know if what you are experiencing is actually holiday depression?  depression?

Disruptions in your eating or sleeping patterns are definitely signs. You should also watch out for overeating and substance use (drinking too much, for example). Also, if you constantly find yourself comparing yourself to other people–thinking that everyone else has more friends, more social events, a nicer family, more money to spend–you might be at risk.

3. So how can we cope with the holiday stress?

  • Practice gratitude. It doesn’t matter if you write it down or say things aloud. Just find one thing a day you are grateful for and express it. It doesn’t need to be huge. It can be something very tiny–for example, I love that someone at the grocery store let me go ahead in the line today…
  • Focus on giving and service, not consumption. By learning to look outward, we can get a huge boost in our own mood. By helping others who are in need, it helps us gain perspective and also helps us feel we having something positive to contribute to the world. This can so helpful when combating feelings of depression and loneliness.
  • Let go of perfectionism. I often tell the story of a friend of mine who made a cake for a party–and it didn’t set properly. She just served the cake as “pudding” topped with some ice cream and kids loved it! Her attitude was everything. Try to remind yourself that the best memories have nothing to do with perfection–and everything to do with the people around you.
  • Try to establish a routine. It’s easy to overeat, over-consume alcohol, overspend, and not sleep enough. Try to plan ahead and use the 80/20 rule. Try to stick to a good eating and sleeping routine at least 5 days out of 7. Then you have a little more leeway on the other two days.
  • Similarly, come up with a budget ahead of time, and try to stick to it. Planning ahead is like putting gas in our car–that way if something unexpected comes up, we have a little extra fuel to take us through. So planning ahead during the holidays is key.
  • Know when to get help. If you are experiencing thoughts of hopelessness or thoughts of hurting yourself, you should contact a professional. Also, if you are having trouble eating, sleeping, going to work, or if you are losing interest in your life and those symptoms  last more than a week or two, reach out for some help. The American Psychological Association has some great information.

4. Any tips for avoiding those particularly stressful family interactions?

  • If you have significant differences—for example, politics—decide ahead of time if that’s what you want to talk about. And if you decide you do, go in with the idea that the other person also means well, be prepared to do some listening, and have a time limit!
  • Find activities your family can do together. For example, playing a game, looking at pictures, decorating a cake. Sometimes structure helps us find what we have in common.