Stress is our body’s reaction to something which upsets the normal balance of life, something more than our usual day-to-day duties and obligations. Stress often triggers a “fight or flight” response. During stressful events, the adrenal glands release adrenalin, a hormone that activates the body’s defense mechanisms, causing the heart rate and blood pressure to increase, muscles to tense, digestion to slow and pupils to dilate. These physiological responses give us the strength and focus to escape or to fight when faced with an acute threat. This once ensured the survival of our species when predators were a true threat.
Today, when many think of “stress,” they think of something negative. Stress is not a pure evil though. The world we live in now may be filled with less literal predators, yes, but the “fight or flight” response to stress can still be useful. It can help us make good, productive decisions when faced with a deadline at work or school, and we often experience cognitive and emotional growth as a result of some stressful experiences as well.
Some are better equipped to handle stress though. Temperament plays a role in how susceptible people are to stress. Most parents have probably observed that one child might be especially fussy by nature and need extra soothing, compared to another who is calmer and can more easily accept and feel comfort. If one does not handle stress well, it can manifest in a variety of ways physically, including headaches, stomach pain, sleep issues, regular illnesses, anxiety and depression. Chronic stress can trigger a secretion of cortisol, a stress hormone, which can cause heart disease, obesity and the suppression of one’s immune system. That’s why it’s imperative to find ways to both harness the power of stress and find ways to cope with and reduce stress levels when they become too high.
The holidays can be an especially stressful time for many people, from holiday shopping that becomes too much to handle, to travel that makes the holidays feel far from festive.
Zahava Davidson, LCSW, Head of the Division of Individual and Relational Psychotherapy at NorthShore, shares some ways to manage your stress levels during the holidays and beyond:
Regular exercise. Often the holidays become an excuse for letting a regular exercise routine fall by the wayside. Don’t do that again this year. You might have less time during the holidays, but make time for exercise. It’s a great stress-reducer and even a short walk each day can do wonders.
Make a list. Finding a better way to manage your time could help you avoid those skyrocketing stress levels altogether. Prioritize your schedule. Chances are, the big things are stressing you out. Which are most important? Which will take the most time? Acknowledge they need to be done, get them out of the way and then enjoy the holidays with your family.
Eat a balanced diet. It’s all about taking care of yourself both mentally and physically. If your stress levels are high, you are more susceptible to illnesses, so you need to keep your body healthy too. Try to eat a balanced diet. Yes, this is important even during the holidays. Also consider limiting alcohol and caffeine consumption. Sleep! Start each day off right. Getting enough sleep each night makes handling stress much easier. When you’re tired, you are more likely to lose your temper or become easily agitated. When you’re well rested, you can better handle whatever the holidays might throw at you, and maybe even enjoy it.Ask for help. You don’t have to do everything on your own. You might be hosting the big meal or you might be hosting family at your house for the week, but that doesn’t mean you have to do all the work. Those who have a strong network of family and friends are better able to handle stress. Let your family and friends take some of the weight off your shoulders.Try meditation and mindfulness. The holidays can leave some with the feeling that they don’t even have time to think. You do. Or you should make time for it. Find time to be alone with your thoughts. For an extra boost of stress relief, consider combining this time with a massage, aromatherapy, yoga or acupuncture to relax your body as well.Acknowledge that holidays can trigger depression. If your family has recently lost a loved one, or certain relatives and friends will be out-of-town, realize that it’s normal to feel grief during the holidays. Allow yourself to feel those emotions, and seek support from community, religious or healthcare resources.Stick to your budget. The cost of food, gifts, travel and entertaining during the holidays can create a financial burden that greatly adds to stress. Plan in advance how much money you can afford to spend, then stay committed to your budget. If your budget is small, create more affordable ways to celebrate such as exchanging homemade gifts or asking guests to bring a potluck dish.
How do you cope with the stress of the holidays?