The holidays are a time of celebration and reconnecting with loved ones, but for some, it can also bring feelings of overwhelm and stress. With travel to plan, guests in town, meals to cook and presents to buy, the holiday season is a hectic time of year. Learn how to manage stress and be your healthiest self, mentally and physically, with the 5 simple tips from our experts.
Stress is an adaptation in the human body that leans on a physiological response in order to stay safe during a time of acute danger. The stress response affects almost every system of the body, including the endocrine system, immune system, metabolism, and sleep regulation, to name a few. When an external or internal stimulus causes the mind to sense danger, the body typically activates the sympathetic nervous system, which releases the stress hormone, cortisol, from the adrenal glands. This “fight or flight” response increases heart rate and blood pressure, enlarges airways in the lungs, and releases blood sugar from temporary storage sites in the body often before an individual is even aware of the change in state.
The stress response was helpful in historic times when survival meant running from a predator. Nowadays, humans rarely experience regular life-or-death predator situations, but the body’s stress response system operates in the same way as our ancestors’ did, and in some cases, can be overactivated by minor stressors. The overactivation of a stress response is what leads to chronic stress, which is can be a driver of inflammation and disease. Chronic stress has been linked to damaged blood vessels, elevated risk of heart attacks, sleep disturbances, and even weight gain, as the body tries to keep energy stores high.
Luckily, while the body knows how to “rev up,” it can also generate a relaxation response. In the case of chronic low-grade stress, however, most of the time a relaxation response requires techniques we must learn to apply regularly to help manage stress levels. During joyful, but often stressful times like the holiday season, it is important to be aware of any continuous feelings of stress and regularly manage the body’s stress response system with tools and techniques. Try these 5 tips to help manage stress this holiday season and any time of year.
Get out into nature
One of the easiest – and free – ways to alleviate stress is to surround yourself with nature. Exposure to greenery has been shown to help reduce physical and psychological stress compared to indoor physical activity.1 Other studies have found that walking in natural settings is more restorative than walking in urban settings, and that exposure to nature can help reduce anger and increase positive affect.2 Aim for at least 10-15 minutes a day in a natural place, even if it’s sitting to observe trees in a city park.
Keep an eye on your diet
It can seem like an impossible task to avoid sugary, processed treats over the holidays, but being mindful of intake could help manage stress. Sweets are often what we reach for during times of stress, but it is actually one of the most addictive substances and, as it turns out, can also be a source of stress in the body. When simple carbohydrates are consumed in high quantities, this can cause spikes and crashes in blood sugar that can trigger feelings of anxiety. Processed foods can also drive inflammation in the body, and too much can create an environment of chronic inflammation over time. A high amount of stress on the body’s detoxification system can lead to other health issues down the line as well. Practice moderation when possible this holiday season, or substitute treats with fruit or natural ingredients to help limit stress on the mind and body too much.
Limit screen time
Screens take over a majority of our daily (and sometimes nightly) lives. From computers at work, to TVs at home and cell phones in-hand, it is harder than ever to escape our world’s digital environment. Screens and electronic devices not only compromise eye health, but they can disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm we rely on to stay healthy and maintain our body’s ability to manage stress. Too much exposure to content on screens, like social media and negative news headlines, can contribute to feelings of anxiety and stress sometimes disproportionally to reality. Set screen time limits on your cell phone, make healthy boundaries around work and tone down TV time at night to prevent added stress and anxiety over the course of the holiday season.
Find an outlet
As humans, our brains have evolved to be overly cautious of danger or possible threats as a way to survive. For that reason, we naturally gravitate to worry and anxiety. Understanding stress as a natural condition and creating a healthier, realistic relationship with it can be the first step in managing mental and emotional stress. After developing a healthy understanding of the ever-present nature of stress, finding an outlet to channel or release stress is a logical next step. For example, a healthy outlet for releasing stress could be sports, art, meditation, or hanging out with friends. Once you find an activity that works, make it a habit to keep stress at bay.
The holidays can be one of the most hectic times of the year. There is a constant to-do list lurking and we can easily fall into a “task-oriented” mindset that can exacerbate feelings of stress. While it may not seem possible, it is worth trying to slow down in times of overwhelm. Breath work, meditation or gentle yoga can help presence the mind and release built-up stress from the body. The holidays should be a time of rest and rejuvenation: reprioritize your mental health this year by taking it a little bit easier.
Stress is a fact of life. There will always be a source of stress that the mind will try to “cling” to. Too much “clinging” can lead to downstream health effects in the body over time, and more obviously lead to a lousy existence day-to-day. The holiday season can exacerbate stress but only if we allow it to. By taking small steps each day, whether it is allowing for some downtime, finding a stress relieving activity, or cooking a healthier version of your favorite comfort food, you can better manage physical and mental stress through the New Year and beyond.