Ahh, the holidays! Time for many to celebrate their faith. Time for others to reflect on the accomplishments of yet another year gone by, and to plan for an even better one ahead. Time to be with family, give thanks, serve others, and enjoy a break from the normal routines of life. Right???
In a perfect world, yes. Although, the stark reality for so many is that the holidays bring on an increasingly high level of undue stress for more reasons than there are days in the holiday season. Financial struggles, health concerns, passing of a loved one, work deadlines, shopping, travel, crowds, and family squabbles are but a few that can spark fear, worry, sadness, anxiety, and depression in just about anyone; if they are not prepared for it.
Add to this the profound increase in calorie intake (particularly sugars), sedentary behavior, late nights and poor sleep, excessive alcohol intake, travel fatigue, decreased physical activity levels, and a general lack of attention to one’s health this time of year, and you have a perfect recipe for both simple and deadly mental and physical health problems.
While suicide increase during the holidays has largely been proven a myth, there are direct correlations between increased mental and physical stress around the holidays leading to exacerbation of depression and other mental health disorders, and a resultant spike in the number of calls to suicide prevention and substance abuse hotlines. It can be theorized that many around the holidays are thankfully unable to act on suicidal thoughts give the increased presence of friends and family, although self-medication through increased drug and alcohol use over the holidays can certainly lead to worse outcomes after the new year for many.
While this is a piece on stress around the holidays, the importance of physical health (which is directly impacted by stress) needs to be considered briefly. As an example, the journal Circulation published research in 2004 showing nationwide trends in heart attacks increasing by 5% during the holidays, with peak incidences occurring on both Christmas and New Year’s Day. Coincidence??? Certainly not. An editorial in the same edition of this journal discussed further the “Merry Christmas Coronary” and the “Happy New Year Heart Attack” phenomenon – related to increased mental and physical stressors this time of year.
With the gloomy realities and statistics behind us, we can now focus on what is most important – what can we do to prevent or minimize the fallout of the holiday season to ensure we may enjoy it to the fullest, and so that we may proceed with peace of mind, good health, and longevity into the year ahead?
- Drink responsibly. Limit your alcohol intake to one drink every 2 hours in social situations, with water in between to avoid intoxication and dehydration – your brain will thank you!
- Walk away. Don’t feel you must change anyone’s mind about politics, sports, or anything else for that matter. Engage in positive dialogue.
- Reach out. If something is deeply upsetting you, sometimes the worst thing to do is hold it in while everyone else is celebrating. Confide in a trusted source.
- Don’t stress over shopping. Getting into fist fights over the newest TV or toy is clearly not what the holidays are about and will dramatically increase your stress levels. Is it really about the presents?
- It’s OK not to travel. Many are compelled to travel due to family pressures and the like. It is OK to ‘skip a year’ if you are overwhelmed and feel you need a break.
- Get to bed. Sleep cycles are impacted enough going into winter with shorter days and longer nights. Be mindful of sleep routines as they have a large impact on buffering chronic stress responses and clearing your brain of toxins.
- Stick to your regular eating habits. If they are healthy ones, that is. It is OK to ‘sample the goods’ around the holidays, but overdoing it will be sure to weaken your immune system and allow stress to harm your brain and body.
- Move your body. Exercise should be a regular part of your daily routine, especially around the holidays. It minimizes the effects of stress and burns the excess calories you will likely indulge in.
- Meditate. Quiet time away from the distractions of the holidays to self-reflect and calm your mind will reduce stress levels.
- Turn off the tube. TV usage skyrockets during the holidays for many, leading to less physical activity and social disconnection. Decrease computer and social media use while you’re at it!
- Play games, listen to music, tell stories. All activities that will engage your mind and connect you to others around you during the holiday season.
- Connect socially. One of the secrets to stress reduction. Social connection produces hormones that reduce stress. If you have little or no family and friends around, volunteer opportunities abound.
Author’s Note: If you or a loved one is experiencing undue stress during the holiday season (or any season) leading to withdrawn, erratic, or dangerous behavior, increased substance use, trouble at home, work, etc., please know there are resources that can help. Brain Training is a highly effective option for dealing with chronic stress outside of acute or emergency situations. In these situations, national helplines are available and should be utilized:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.8255
National Substance Abuse Hotline: 1.800.622.HELP (4357)