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Holiday stress? Humbug!

Christmas, Chanukah, New Year’s … stress. Right? Not necessarily

It’s December, and you’re going mad. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done – shopping for and wrapping a pile of presents; buying and trimming a tree; addressing holiday cards; going to temple; visiting Santa at the mall. Add to that the stress of your workaday life and the horrific tales of the world’s woes on the evening news, and, well, you just want to go ho-ho-home and cry.

The holiday season is traditionally stressful, and there’s no denying that the media bombardment of the 21st century feeds our Yuletide stress levels. But there are ways to crank down our end-of-the-year anxieties, experts say, and enjoy a little more fa-la-la-la-la.

Simply put, stress is the body’s response to any perceived threat. Whether the stressful situation is physical or psychological, our bodies undergo a dramatic “fight or flight” reaction fueled by a complex cascade of chemicals. The hypothalamus gland, alerted by the brain of pending danger, produces a hormone that prompts the adrenal glands to release an energizing hormone known as adrenaline. Proteins are converted to sugars to provide readily accessible energy. Blood is diverted from your digestive system and other nonvital systems and pushed to your muscles to make you faster and stronger than you would normally be. The result is a speedy pulse, higher blood pressure, and heightened awareness – a response we call stress. 

Unfortunately, the body’s response mechanisms haven’t changed all that much over the centuries. They continue to react as if those long holiday lines at the department store checkout were a herd of wild buffalo headed our way. The addition of holiday-related stress to our already over-programmed lives is so subtle, we’re barely aware of it, according to author and stress expert Joseph Michelli, Ph.D. He recommends striking a new balance during the holiday season by stepping away from some of the day-to-day things that stress us out.

For starters, Michelli suggests limiting our intake of world news in December. “The media shapes our sense of safety in the world around us,” he says, “but most of us aren’t tracing its effect on our well-being.” A string of minor stresses – a violent YouTube clip on Tuesday night, a worrisome television news story on Thursday morning, a week’s worth of tabloid headlines – can all cause our bodies to build up a response that’s as dramatic as a reaction to a serious threat, Michelli says, and can leave you feeling exhausted. When these built-up stresses repeat themselves over time, the feeling of exhaustion can become chronic and spin off into other health risks that last well past the holidays.

Fans of reality shows who are stressing out about whether their favorite contestant is about to be voted off an island or out of a singing competition can comfort themselves with a friendly reminder, according to cinematherapist Conni Sharp, Ed.D. “Everyone knows that a portion of all reality shows are staged,” says Sharp, who assigns films to patients as a means of opening communication about what’s troubling them. “Instead of worrying that your favorite guy is about to lose, focus on all the national attention he got while he was on the show. That’s the good part of the reality.”

Holiday movies can be cheery, but many of them are quite sad. (It’s a Wonderful Life, anyone?) For many people, watching a sad movie is a good thing, Sharp insists. “It’s a healthy way to experience sadness in a controlled way,” she says, likening the experience to a ride on a rollercoaster. “Rollercoasters are scary, but you know you’re safe. It works the same way with sad movies. They provide a safe way to tap into our sadness, which – let’s face it – we sometimes need to do.”

Tears might be good but, as Reader’s Digest once suggested, laughter may be the best medicine. In an experiment using laughter-provoking movies to gauge the effect of emotions on cardiovascular health, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore recently proved that laughter is linked to the healthy function of blood vessels. When volunteers were shown a segment of a violent war film, their blood vessel lining developed a potentially unhealthy response called vasoconstriction, which reduces blood flow. Volunteers shown bits of a comedy, on the other hand, experienced an expansion of these same tissues, thereby increasing healthy blood flow – the same response created by aerobic exercise.

“We don’t know the precise mechanism that accounts for the relaxation of the blood vessel lining in response to laughter,” says Dr. Michael Miller, who led the experiment. “One intriguing possibility is that laughter releases brain chemicals that may crosstalk with blood vessel chemicals to produce this effect. At the very least, laughter offsets the impact of mental stress, which is harmful to continued good health at any time of the year.”  

Supplements for stress

The Physician’s Desk Reference Family Guide to Nutrition and Health suggests that stress can cause the release of certain chemicals that lead to the production of free radicals, the highly destructive compounds that can burn up key molecules within our cells. To help prevent or repair the damage these compounds cause, consider these tips:

• The ravages of stress can be patched up with a daily dose of antioxidant vitamins C, E, beta-carotene, and B-complex, all available at your local health food store.

• Stress depletes energy, so power snacks – complex carbohydrates like bagels, cereals, and fruits – are a good idea when you’re frazzled, especially at a time of year when trays of cookies are everywhere.

• Stress increases your body’s need for nutrients. Nutritionists often recommend supplements containing such nutrients as calcium, potassium, zinc and magnesium to ease the ravages of stress.

Yes, Virginia, there is a stress-free holiday afoot

Try these stress releasers on for size:

- Exercise can relieve stress brought on by too much holiday cheer. When you’re jogging or doing laps in the pool, it’s harder to focus on something that’s bugging you – like what to get your kids for Chanukah this year. Exercise relieves the pent-up energy brought on by too much stress and increases fitness, which helps your body cope with stress. And it’s never too early to start burning off those extra holiday pounds by joining an exercise group in December.

- In her book Managing Your Mind and Mood Through Food, M.I.T. researcher and nutritionist Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., notes that during times of stress, eating three smaller, protein-rich meals keeps blood sugar at a constant level, providing more consistent energy, which you may need to stand up to holiday stress.

- Tell everyone you know that you want Santa to bring you a year’s worth of free massages or a book about the joys of meditation. Meditation and massage are great, because they help you relax and clear your mind. If you’re not thinking, then you’re not worrying, and your body has a chance to snap out of that fight-or-flight mode brought on by stressful holiday stuff.

- Keeping disturbing images at bay has a deep effect on our health and well-being, according to Doro Kiley, a professional life coach who teaches Buddhist meditation practices as a means of balancing the stresses of daily life. These images cause a rush of adrenalin that our bodies become addicted to, so cutting out late-night news shows or any other program that might cause you grief too close to bedtime is a good idea. Kiley suggests going out for a run or a swim after catching up on your favorite stress-inducing programs, or taking a walk around the block after the nightly news and just before bedtime.

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This Article appears on the December 2011 issue of LPM under Health

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