Nancy Lessard's friends still tease her about the time she hosted a total of 16 parties between Christmas and New Year's Day. It was a higher volume of holiday gatherings than usual for the Shelton resident -- but not by much.

"We love to entertain," Lessard said. "But we tend to overextend ourselves."

The holidays can be a fraught time for many of us. For some, like Lessard, this supposedly festive time of year brings a few more logs to throw on their already roaring fire of responsibilities. For others, the prospect of buying holiday gifts, and further straining their already delicate finances, is cause for heart palpitations. Still others dread the impending arrival of relatives who, though loved, carry their own sets of troubles and complications.

For Lessard, overextending is a theme in her life. In addition to teaching several courses at St. Joseph High School in Trumbull, including criminal justice and civics, she's a student council adviser, involved in the pep club and participates in a variety of other activities. She's also mom to two children -- a daughter at college and a son who's a high school senior applying to college -- and directs local theater productions.

"My life is already pretty stressful," Lessard said. "And then, you throw the holidays into the mix."

A lot of the stress people feel around the holidays can be linked to unrealistic expectations, said Lisa Mazzeo, a licensed clinical social worker practicing in Fairfield.

"The world paints a picture of the holidays being for families and loved ones and those sort of cozy scenarios," she said.

But the reality can often be much more complicated. Maybe you don't get along with your family or maybe you've lost family members recently, and the holidays conjure up painful feelings. "And now you have six to eight weeks of hearing people talk about how great the holidays are," Mazzeo said.

The current economic crisis can strain pocketbooks and fray nerves in the season of "giving" -- as in, going out and buying gifts for friends and family. "Finances are a big stressor," Mazzeo said. "There's a lot of pressure out there to keep up with the Joneses, but the economy might not always allow that." That can be particularly tough for kids to understand, she said, as they tend to want what their friends have.

Though Lessard has little stress around gift-giving or family issues, she acknowledges that she often does too much at the holidays. This year is no exception. Lessard has already scheduled some seasonal get-togethers, and is directing a musical production of "Miracle on 34th Street," which will play at the Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport from Dec. 8 to Dec. 10. Though Lessard loves this time of year and its many opportunities to reconnect with friends and family, sometimes all of the responsibilities she takes on get a little overwhelming.

"All of a sudden, I say to myself `Why? Why am I doing all of this?' " she said.

For Terron Jones, of Bridgeport, one of the most draining parts of the holiday season is trying to get all of his relatives -- who are dispersed in a variety of locations -- together to celebrate. On Thanksgiving, for example, he hoped to gather as many family members as he could to visit his 88-year-old aunt, who lives by herself. But with everyone's various commitments, that proved challenging. The holidays are also a tough time financially for Jones' relatives, several of whom are unemployed. "It's all very stressful," he said.

There are ways to keep from drowning in holiday stress, and many of them are a matter of attitude adjustment. For instance, Mazzeo said, don't lose sight of what, or who, you care about most. "One of my favorite things to tell people is to take a personal inventory of what's important to them," she said. "If what's really important to you is taking care of your dog, then keep doing that. Nothing's changed just because it's the holiday season."

Alejandra Hochstedler, manager of the intensive outpatient program at St. Vincent's Behavioral Health Services in Westport, agreed that perspective is important this time of year. Hochstedler recommends pinpointing what's worrying you about the holidays and finding a solution to the problem. Upset that your family traditions are being broken because loved ones have died, moved away, or lost touch with the family? Instead of wallowing in wistfulness, Hochstedler said, why not create new traditions?

Worried that you're going to be alone this holiday season? Maybe you should volunteer to help those less fortunate. "If you're going to a shelter or food kitchen and giving of your time, are you really alone?" Hochstedler said.

Jones, for one, said he's trying to stay upbeat despite the many challenges posed by this season. "I just cope by trying to find the positive in everything," he said. For instance, the day before Thanksgiving, Jones had decided that, if he could get any family members to visit his aunt with him, he would be happy. "If it puts a smile on my aunt's face, then that's good."

Lessard, meanwhile, has her own way of preventing stress from dragging her down. To keep from getting overwhelmed, she plans her holiday events and activities meticulously. During the year of 16 parties, for example, she made a detailed calendar of who was coming when and what the menu would be. She's also decided that there are certain things she just won't spend much time fretting about. "I don't even worry so much about gifts," Lessard said. "Those fall into place."

Reach Amanda Cuda at or 203-330-6290. Follow at