‘Tis the season to be jolly, so why are so many of us sad and unhappy at the most wonderful time of the year? Could it be utensil placement?

I have a friend who lives in North Carolina that I only get to visit every blue moon, but when I do, they like to take me to meet up with all the other family members to eat an evening meal. It never fails that we go to the home of Cordelia.

Now, Cordelia is a good cook, and she puts on a nice spread when I am there, and she always sets the table with her finest china and everyday stainless, but she never, ever places the silverware in the correct order; this is very stressful for me.

Yes, it should be all about gathering, talking and laughing over a great meal, but all I can see is sad silverware placed in the wrong order! I try really hard not to make a fuss over it, but I always break down! I have to move the silverware to its proper place.

Utensils are placed in the order of use; from the outside in. With only a few exceptions, forks go to the left of the plate, and knives and spoons go to the right. Finally, only set the table with the utensils you will be using. Not serving soup? Then, no soup spoon for you. 

As silly as it is, utensil placement is a holiday stressor for me. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, 38 percent of people said their stress level increases during the holidays. Another survey by the investment firm Principal Financial Group, revealed that 53 percent of people feel financially stressed by holiday spending, even though more than half of the 1,000 respondents had created spending budgets. A primary source of this stress actually stems from the pressure to be jolly.

"It comes down to expectations that run high for joy, for bringing the family together, for giving gifts that show how much you love those around you, for a beautiful meal," says Debra Kissen, executive director of the Light on Anxiety CBT Treatment Center in Chicago and co-chair of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America's public education committee. "Any time we set ourselves up with high expectations, it's not going to work out that way."

Kissen calls it the "happiness trap."

"When we try too hard to be happy, we make ourselves miserable," she explains. There are in fact many potential traps during the holidays. The APA study revealed the top stressors include lack of time, money worries, over-commercialization, gift-giving pressure and family get-togethers. The hassles of travel and worries about taking time off from work also make the list.

The key to coping with holiday stress is to anticipate your potential stressors. When she treats patients with anxiety, Kissen says that a big part of the work is knowing your own triggers and planning ahead. "You don't avoid a bumpy road, you just slow down and proceed with caution," she says. "It's the same with the holidays." 

So for me, when I go to see Cordial, I know that the silverware placement will be in the wrong order. I should plan ahead and anticipate what is going to happen, and bring a spork!

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