By J. Ron Eaker, M.D.
The holidays are always a time of unbridled joy, irrepressible energy, and marvelous moods… NOT! While some may experience happy times from late November until early January, for many this season is anything but joyful. Yes, celebrating with family and friends can be energizing and fulfilling, but it can also be fraught with anxiety and stress.
A first step in managing stress is acknowledging it is present and fighting the urge to downplay its impact. Stress is simply a response, both physiological and psychological, to a real or perceived threat. While many threats are real, like crotchety old uncle Charlie, much stress is created, magnified and multiplied by your own thoughts. There are a multitude of physical effects of stress such as lowered immunity, elevated blood pressure, headaches, sleep disorders and more, so it is beneficial to learn ways to manage it. Notice that I didn’t say eliminate the stress. It is impossible to excise stress from your life like a surgeon excises cancer. Stress is intrinsic to being alive. However, it is possible to manage it better.
Here a few proven techniques for managing stress, especially during the holidays.
I know, you are sick of hearing about the wonderful world of sweating and spandex, but every study on the planet has shown a positive impact of exercise on moods and anxiety. New research shows that you don’t have to spend an hour at the gym (which is probably still closed). You can do two or three 10-minute walks and gain mood-enhancing benefits, and in a pandemic world, there is nothing safer than a long walk outside.
Dump the Java
Caffeine is a stimulant and the last thing most of us need is more stimulation. I realize that some of you would be blubbering masses of couch-bound protoplasm without your morning coffee—as would I—but slamming down a pot of joe before lunch is not conducive for chilling out. Think of caffeine as the volume control on the stress stereo. Be mindful of caffeine sources found in tea, sodas, some headache medicines, chocolate and “energy” drinks.
Booze it Easy
Statistically, people drink more during the holidays with all the festive parties. Even teetotalers are tempted to have a glass of Aunt June’s special eggnog. An occasional glass of red wine has been shown to have some health benefits, but that doesn’t translate to the motto that more is better. Self-medicating with alcohol is a classic reaction to stress and it inevitably ends up creating more problems than it masks.
Many people who work less during the holidays say they are going to catch up on their sleep, but it turns out this is hopeful thinking. Things like travel and varied schedules lead to poorer quality sleep. Sleep deprivation creates anxiety, which creates sleep problems, which increases anxiety… you can see where this is going. A good seven to eight hours a night does wonders for managing stress and moodiness. Try to maintain a regular sleep pattern during the holidays, even if the mattress at your parent’s house is 30 years old.
Related to good quality sleep is locking all your electronic devices in your gun cabinet at night. Exposure to screens, be it your phone, iPad, or 500-inch plasma Megatron TV, has been shown to magnify stress. Some studies suggest the blue light from screens interferes with melatonin production (critical for sleep), but it may also be the stress-inducing content of most TV shows and Facebook feeds.
Many folks are more reflective during the holidays, and this can be used to your advantage. This can take the form of prayer, meditation or just throwing a ball against the wall and catching it. Simply quieting the mind and being conscious of your breathing for as little as five minutes a day can have a beneficial impact on stress. You don’t have to sit in the lotus position and contemplate your navel (it’s more fun to contemplate someone else’s navel), but any technique that trains you to be mindful of the moment is helpful.
Finally, if you find yourself doing all these things and still battling with overwhelming stress during the holidays, get help. Talk to your doctor, pastor, trusted friend or support group and get care. The biggest mistake folks make is thinking things will get better on their own. Or worse, they blame themselves for their circumstances and feel they are alone in their struggles. Help is available. So, don’t be afraid, embarrassed or shy to reach out for it.
Dr. Eaker is an Augusta Ob/GYN and author. He and his wife, Susan, have two daughters in college.