It’s the holiday season, and it arrives with acclaim as the most wonderful time of the year. While the comfort food, time with loved ones and gifts certainly help adorn the season with positive feelings, for many, this time of year is also exceedingly stressful.
With the year’s biggest celebrations just around the bend, don’t let stress ruin your holidays — or your health.
The merriment of it all can quickly become sullied by the stresses of scheduling conflicts, bargain shopping, gridlocked traffic, rapidly eroding timelines and a to-do list longer than Santa’s.
The resulting stress is not only emotionally taxing, it can also have negative physical ramifications. And the symptoms are very similar to the body’s response to fear.
“Think of stress as a prolonged, lower level of persistent fear,” said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott, M.D. “The same types of hormones are present: adrenaline goes up and levels of cortisol increase. All of these things taken together can result in increased heart rate, increased blood pressure and can have negative impacts on your physical and emotional health.”
Stress is a normal part of life, and the body is designed to react to it. Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, said in some cases stress can even be a good thing. “It keeps people alert and aware of dangerous situations or threats around them,” said Prescott.
But unlike other types of stress, the holiday variety is largely self-inflicted. We can set such high expectations for ourselves that it leads to prolonged anxiety, where we anticipate things going wrong even before they do or if they never do.
“People have Norman Rockwell paintings in their heads of a family gathered around a tree or riding through the snow on a sleigh. The truth is that it rarely happens that way. Your everyday stressors don’t go away just because it’s holiday time,” said Prescott.
So in addition to our usual stress points, our instincts can lead us to feel guilty, obsess about details and second-guess things like the dinner menu or gift choices.
Prescott said these issues take on a snowball effect, causing stress levels to increase. Loss of sleep over impending tasks and commitments can hamper immune system function and compound stress.
“Chronic stress and anxiety disorders can require medications, counseling and therapy,” said Prescott. “Luckily, the majority of people experiencing issues during the holidays do not fall into that camp.”
“Mostly it’s what we refer to as situational anxiety,” he said. “If you’re worried in advance about the party you’re hosting, that can generate anxiety because you feel responsible for overseeing a pleasant outcome.”
Experts agree that it helps to focus on what you can control this holiday season. Even simple changes can make a big difference in your stress levels, Prescott said. “Plan your shopping trips in advance, distribute responsibilities, ask your significant other what they really want instead of playing a guessing game. In other words, set realistic expectations for yourself and others.”
Stress and anxiety can become a sizable lump of coal in your stocking, but whether or not that becomes a reality largely begins with you.
Prescott prescribes an easy-to-understand suggestion for how to best deal with it: “As my grandma used to say, ‘Don’t go borrowing trouble from the future.’”
Looking for some extra help with stress? Try these handy tips:
Five Tips to Help Sleigh Your Holiday Stress
Set realistic expectations for yourself—and others—to keep your holidays bright.
1. Make a budget and stick with it
Overspending on the holidays can extend your stress into the new year. Decide what amount really fits your bank balance and resist the urge to go over it. Or set aside money each month during the year to prepare for the holidays in advance.
2. Ask for help
“Don’t think you have to shoulder the responsibility for every holiday meal or gathering yourself,” said Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation President Stephen Prescott. Ask friends and family to pitch in and bring food, drinks or even decorations. Or ask guests to bring the ingredients and cook the meal together.
3. Simplify, simplify, simplify
Instead of preparing 20 appetizers for your party, choose three favorites to share. Even if grandma had a dozen special holiday recipes, you can have a great gathering with just a few of them on the table. And a few simple decorations can feel just as festive as a houseful of them.
4. Give a little
Extravagant gifts are nice, but you can enjoy your holiday just as well with fewer gifts under the tree. Encourage your family to draw names or forego gifts all together and donate to a favorite charity. You’ll feel even better inside knowing you helped a worthy cause.
“Stay active during the holidays even when your calendar is packed,” Prescott said. “A walk in the brisk air can help you sleep better and clear your mind. It’ll help burn off a few Santa cookies, too.”