Person holding head surrounded by festive decorations

Holidays and Stress

December 13th, 2021 / Lifestyle Medicine & Mindfulness

 

Don’t you just love the holidays? The carols, the cookies, the consumerism? What? You don’t? 

You might be gratified to know that it’s not just you. Looking at a variety of surveys from different companies and organizations, I found that the percentage of adults in the US who say they feel stressed during the holidays ranges from about 44% to 88%! What’s so stressful about the “most wonderful time of the year”? The American Psychological Association broke down what aspects of the holidays stress most people, and who is most stressed:

  • Holiday stress affects women more than men and women report having a harder time relaxing and are more likely to fall into poor health habits, like comfort eating.
  • People are stressed by extreme emotions, ranging from intense joy and love to intense stress and overwhelm.
  • People are often stressed by the financial demands of the holidays.
  • Many feel stressed by the commercialism of the season.
  • The pressure to make the holidays perfect for family and friends is a stressor.
  • Workplace stress may increase, as people rush to complete work while also preparing for the holidays or knowing they will have time off and have to make up for it.
  • People tend to move less and eat more over the holidays, which can add stress when these behaviors lead to guilt or uncomfortable weight gain.
  • The added pressure of fixing all their bad habits starting on January 1st can be even more stressful (although to some, this feels like a relief).
  • The negative feelings often reported include fatigue, stress, irritability, bloating, sadness, anger, and loneliness. 
  • Leading stressors by rank include lack of time, lack of money, commercialism and hype, pressure of giving or getting gifts, the stress of family gatherings, sticking with a diet, increasing credit card debt, travel stress, and stress from children.

All that stress is bad news for health because chronic stress can lead to inflammation. Research has demonstrated that chronic stress upsets the body’s delicate balance (homeostasis), by keeping it in a state of high alert, with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline pumping through the blood stream all the time. This leads to inflammation, which is an underlying feature of most if not all of the chronic diseases, from heart disease to depression, that are so common in our modern, stressed-out world. Inflammation is hard on the body, and that’s not merry! 

Are we doomed to white-knuckle it through the holidays, achy, inflamed, and irritable? Certainly not! You don’t have to be a victim of holiday stress. You can take the reins back and have a joyful holiday season without the aggravation. All it takes is a little planning. Here are my best tips for reducing your holiday stress and embracing the magic of the season:

  • Tune in. Your body is talking to you all the time, telling you when you are taking on to much. Listen to those messages. Spend a little quiet time, by yourself, every day, to check in with your body. Even five minutes will do it. Sit, close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and scan your body for tension. Notice if something is bothering you—that nagging feeling—and try to identify what it is. If you recognize that you are feeling stressed, that is a message from your body to intervene.
  • Keep an organized to-do list. Not being sure you did everything or remembered everything can add to the frantic nature of holiday stress. Keep records! Make a gift list and check off items and people once they are covered—and keep it handy so you can remember later who received what. Make menus, shopping lists, and other holiday to-dos. Organize them by date so you know when to do what. Getting all those plans out of your head and down on paper (real paper or digital) can be a huge relief because you won’t have to rely on your memory—especially since stress can make people less likely to remember things.
  • Trim your list. Trim the tree, yes, but also trim that to-do list I just mentioned. After you write it all down, take a good hard look at it and evaluate the things you think you “have to” do. Maybe,  upon closer inspection, you will see they are things you don’t really need to do. Maybe this is a year to scale back? Check your perfectionism and get real. What would happen if you didn’t bake cookies this year, or if you didn’t break your budget just for a momentary wow effect, or if you didn’t invite everybody and their brother to your home for holiday cheer? Do what gives you joy, certainly. But if an item on your list fills you with dread, consider deleting it.
  • Be kind to your body. It may be tempting to eat all the sugar, watch all the holiday movies, drink all the alcohol, and collapse on the couch when it all gets to be too much, but you know perfectly well that’s not good for you. Stressful times are the most important times to take care of yourself, so make room in your holiday schedule for nutritious meals, regular exercise, and meaningful connection with the people you love. This will maximize your chances of feeling good and handling stress better. 
  • Breathe. Deep breathing can reverse the stress response within seconds, because your body knows that if you were truly in danger, you would not be taking long, slow, deep breaths. This sends a message of calm and “everything’s okay” to your body. Whenever you are feeling overwhelmed, take five minutes to sit and breathe deeply. 
  • Give yourself the gift of meditation. Many studies have shown that meditation can reduce stress and also reduce inflammation, actually reversing the increase of pro-inflammatory cytokines associated with chronic stress. It can also help you to calm down and put things into perspective again. Meditation is easy to do. All it takes is sitting still and noticing your breath and the sensations in and around you. Visualizing peaceful scenes or repeating a peaceful phrase are also effective techniques. Start with just five minutes once or twice a day and work up to 20, if you feel it helps you. A consistent meditation practice might be the best gift you could give yourself this season.

Good luck, God bless, and may your holidays be calm and bright.

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