Cue the Stress
Practical Tips for Enjoying the Holidays
Holidays set off emotional sparks for many of us. A Christmas concert at Milton Theater last month awakened memories I had buried deep about my family and the wonderful Christmases we had decades ago. I got sad remembering holidays that will never be again. It roused an emptiness in the pit of my stomach and brought tears to my eyes. I got short of breath. I was stressed.
Stress is an individualized affair. What sets me off is not what affects others. My friends who attended the concert with me simply enjoyed the music.
We all have our triggers that create stress this time of the year. Often sleep, exercise, eating well, relaxing, and self-care practices fall by the wayside. But the holidays come every year. Now the pressure is on. What can we do?
Years ago, our stress response helped keep people alive. We may no longer have to daily fend for our lives, but we still click into stress overload, sometimes on a daily basis. When we sense a threat, our bodies respond by releasing a hormone called cortisol, activating our fight or flight response. Our heart rate and breathing rate increases, blood pressure rises, and muscles tighten.
In small, short doses, stress can help us perform under pressure. However, prolonged stress can compromise our immune systems and lessen our bodies’ ability to protect us from disease, lengthen healing time, and impair mental function.
Anything can cause stress. Around the holidays, overbooked schedules, unrealistic expectations, worry, guilt, and rigid thinking are big button-pushers.
Some physical signs you are stressed out include back or neck aches, frequent colds or headaches, constant tiredness or fatigue, changes in appetite, stomachaches, or heartburn. Stress affects more than just our bodies. Anxiety, worry, depression or mood swings, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, feeling overwhelmed or overreacting, an increased number of minor accidents, weight gain or loss, increased alcohol consumption, and difficulty making decisions are all signs of stress.
The good news is that once we know what will set us off, we can learn to control how we react. Back when I drove to New York for the holidays, I knew my family dynamics were a source of stress for me. I would spend the four hours in the car listening to relaxing CDs and visualizing how I wanted my trip to unfold. I practiced self-talk and created phrases I could repeat in my head that calmed me. I found doing the prep work made my family time much more enjoyable.
Here are a few simple, daily practices that can help you be more grounded and centered.
→ Sit quietly. Just 5-10 minutes most days can help lower blood pressure.
→ Exercise to release endorphins that make us happy.
→ Soak in a warm bath or stand in a hot shower to release muscle tension and stimulate blood circulation.
→ Rest. Go to sleep or take a nap. It will reset your mood.
→ Massage. No time for a full-body massage? Give yourself a scalp massage or foot massage before bed. It helps you sleep.
→ Stay away from highly-processed or junk food. Foods to help lessen stress include salmon, almonds and blueberries.
→ Cut down on screen time.
→ Get organized.
→ Prioritize. We’re not super people. Regular multitasking is bad for one’s mental health.
Despite daily practices, we will still find ourselves in situations that cause our hearts to race. If we can’t leave or hang up the phone (which would remedy the situation), what can we do?
→ Change our perspective. There’s always a different way to perceive the same thing.
→ Take a deep breath (or two or three). Most of the time we breathe shallowly into our chest. Pause and breathe slowly into the belly then exhale slowly.
→ Take yourself to a happier place (in your head). I often do this while talking on the phone. I let a friend vent while I take myself to my happy place—the beach.
→ Let go of worry and guilt—two useless emotions. Neither is going to change the situation.
→ Tense and relax your muscles. The practice will change your focus.
Most of all—enjoy the holiday season! Focus on the fun and let go of the rest. Build into your life long-term strategies for stress relief that allow you to minimize the impact of any situation that comes your way. It’s powerful to realize that we have control over how we react and how we feel. It makes it so much easier to handle whatever happens over the holidays—or any other day. ▼
Pattie Cinelli is a journalist and fitness professional who focuses on leading-edge-of-thought ways to stay healthy and get well. Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.