The holiday season is supposed to lift people’s spirits with joy and wonder, but it sometimes triggers feelings of stress and depression.

And just like hope, there is always help.

People need to put themselves on the right path to alleviate the stress they feel, said Josephine Tate, area health agent with the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

“The key is to handle stress in a way that doesn’t make things worse,” said Tate, who is based in Kemper County. “Unhealthy behaviors people use to manage stress can contribute to some of the country’s biggest health problems, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”

Individuals who recognize the factors that trigger their own stress often can avoid or minimize the emotional and physical effects of it. More than 61 percent of Americans participating in an American Psychological Association survey listed money as the No. 1 holiday stressor.

“One of the biggest and most stressful challenges during the holidays is the ability of parents to buy presents for their children,” said Jefferson County Extension director Thelma Barnes. “This has become even more trying for people in my area because of high unemployment and the decision of many retailers to discontinue layaway.”

People who have money problems may want to spread out their expenses over 12 months and take advantage of special sales during the year, Barnes said.

“They also would have time to find stores that still have layaway policies and find alternatives such as television shopping channels that offer the luxury of paying for items in installments,” she said.

Americans put three other holiday stressors high on the survey list. More than 42 percent of respondents ranked gift-giving as the second-highest stressor, and 34 percent identified time demands as a third. At least 23 percent put credit card debt as fourth.

The same survey revealed that 22 percent of respondents ate and 14 percent drank to cope with holiday stress. Another 45 percent relied on exercise while 44 percent engaged in religious or spiritual activities.

“Most people deal with holiday stress by turning to what they know makes them feel good,” Tate said. “Ironically, the things that make them feel good instantaneously, like food or drink, can be dire in the long run.”

Some individuals conquer stress by handling it in a way that doesn’t make things worse, such as turning to massage, yoga or other relaxation therapy, Tate said. Others choose to take a deep breath and walk away from a stressful situation.

Talking about a problem or establishing a strong channel of communication not only can relieve stress but it can also strengthen a bond within a marriage, family or group of friends, said Tabitha Staier, MSU Extension family education and policy specialist.

“The holidays are an excellent opportunity to spend quality time with people you don’t see very often,” she said. “If you are experiencing stress because of the holidays, remain positive and build resilience. When you can keep things in perspective, you prime your mind and body to deal with stress.”