By: Dr. Monica Northington
You’ve put away all the costumes. The spider webs and jack-o-lanterns are gone with the weekly garbage run. The kids have eaten the last of the candy. Just as you pause to collect yourself, you notice your neighbor’s Christmas tree in their window. Surprise! The holidays are here!
For most of us, October through January is one big pumpkin-spiced blur. We trade hustles for bustles and hardly miss a beat between crowded parking lots and stores. But for many, this frenzy of activity brings a next-level set of decisions and tasks. Sometimes the busyness of it all becomes overwhelming – so overwhelming that the resulting stress robs us of the joy and fellowship the seasons bring.
Stress is a physiological response to a real or perceived threat. As a part of the stress response, your body mounts a fight, flight, or freeze mechanism accompanied by the release of stress hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. These hormones cause the heart to beat faster and release more oxygen-rich blood to your major organs and the rest of the body. In the sense that it enables the body to cope with and escape threats, stress is adaptive and helpful. And in otherwise young and healthy individuals, stress is not a health threat. However, stress is not just a transient “feeling” of being under pressure. Chronic or prolonged stress has harmful effects on your health. It can cause a variety of symptoms and affect critical systems in the body, including but not limited to:
- Cardiovascular system. Stress hormones cause the heart to beat faster and harder to pump blood to the body. As a result, blood pressure increases. Over time, high blood pressure strains the heart and weakens blood vessels, leading to heart attacks and strokes.
- Respiratory system. During the stress response, the respiratory rate increases, so more oxygen reaches the tissues. However, during stress, the respiratory muscles that help us breathe become tense, causing shortness of breath. If you have a respiratory disease like asthma, stress can make it more difficult to breathe.
- Immune system. The stress response stimulates the body’s immune system to aid in healing wounds and injuries. However, chronic stress weakens the immune system, making the body more vulnerable to infections like the flu or the common cold.
- Digestive system. Stress hormones lead to an increase in the production of stomach acid. The increased acid may lead to an upset stomach or symptoms of acid reflux. Also, the stress response triggers the liver to release stores of blood sugar to produce energy. In chronic stress, the body may inefficiently break down excess glucose, leading to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
Based in Hattiesburg, MS, Tiffany Ross, Ph.D., M.F.T. is the C.E.O. of Dr. Tiffany Ross Coaching and Consulting (www.drtiffanyross.com) . A native of Pelahatchie, MS, and a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, Dr. Ross is a Marriage and Family Therapist who is well-versed in recognizing and managing the stress the holidays can bring. According to Dr. Ross, the holiday season can trigger stress simply because of its rapid pace and the number of additional tasks we tend to take on. However, the holidays can also be difficult because they remind us of losses we may have experienced in the past, whether from deaths, divorces, separations, relocations, or other life events. Add to that the collective trauma of nearly two years of pandemic life, and stress is unavoidable for most of us.
Known measures for dealing with stress include getting adequate rest, practicing calming techniques, and spending quality time with family and friends. In addition to these coping strategies, Dr. Ross suggests taking the following steps to ensure this holiday season is a source of joy for you and your family:
- Stay active. Get some form of exercise for at least 30 minutes each day to release your body’s endorphins and to decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- Go outside. Interacting with nature will boost your mood and relieve tension. Sunlight will also increase Vitamin D production in your body and diminish depressive symptoms associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
- Practice mindfulness. Stay in the moment, and do not allow yourself to jump ahead to the next thing on your “to-do” list. Focus on what is happening now and maximize the joy of the present.
- Check-in with yourself. If you notice stressful feelings cropping up, take a moment to determine what might have happened to trigger those uncomfortable feelings.
- Establish and maintain boundaries. Know your limits for activity and interactions and honor them. Also, recognize and keep your limits with friends and family, especially for sensitive topics and conversations. Remember, “NO is a complete sentence.”
- Practice gratefulness. Find at least one thing to be thankful for each day, especially if you feel exhausted, discouraged, or depressed.
- Find your person. Identify at least one go-to person you can trust to support you and check-in with you through this season. Remember, no one is an island. We need community.
Stress is common and even unavoidable in today’s fast-paced world, especially during the holiday season. But taking these steps to manage your stress can help you feel happier during the holidays, and it can help you lead a healthier life overall.