Holiday Stress: How It Affects Our Body and How to Manage It
Holiday stress is real and can affect everything from your immune system, to your hormones, and your weight. Everything from meal planning, grocery shopping, gift giving, to holiday gatherings make the holiday season a hectic one. These added responsibilities, on top of the everyday stressors, can really take a toll on a person’s mental and physical health.
The American Psychological Association conducted a study using a survey of 786 adults ages 18 and over. It looked at holiday stress causes, how holiday stress differs from everyday stress, and what people do to manage this type of stress. Some of the key findings include:
- Holiday stress has a particular impact on women who participated in the survey (44% of women vs 31% of men said they felt an increase in stress level during the holidays)
- Lower middle-income individuals also felt more stressed during the holidays. Worries about money are increased due to the pressure of spending a lot of money in gifts.
- The holidays increase stress for people in the US due to the feeling of lack of time, lack of money and commercialism of the season.
- Men and women feel the pressure to make the holidays a perfect time for their families.
- People worry about having enough time off to get everything done during the season.
- Many reported that they engage in sedentary and unhealthy behaviors to deal with the added stress. For example, many reported to engage in comfort eating, drinking and watching TV for long periods of time.
The Effects of Holiday Stress
As noted above, many people engage in more unhealthy behaviors during the holidays. Social gatherings often mean heavier foods, alcohol and sedentary activities. Some people reduce their sleep hours in order to get everything needed done. These activities trigger a chain reaction and cycle that affect our ability to digest and absorb nutrients, make us feel tired and in a brain fog, which in turn can increase our stress even more. Stress triggers the release of cortisol, which affects many different body functions. Having elevated levels of cortisol for more than just a short period of time (the way that cortisol is meant to work), can cause health problems in the long run.
Stress can sometimes trigger the “flight-or-fight” response, and when this happens, digestion could slow down and sometimes even stop, to allow the body to handle the perceived “threat.” On the other hand, it is possible that stress could cause diarrhea due to the increase in contractions in the colon.
Some people see an increase of heartburn and painful swallowing due to the increased tension in the esophagus. After all, stress can cause tension everywhere in our bodies, from our shoulders to GI muscles.
Cortisol is a hormone used by our bodies to temporarily increase energy levels (by flooding the body with glucose) in stressful, or “fight-or-flight” situations, at the expense of other processes in our bodies that are not needed for immediate survival. Cortisol also fights inflammation in our bodies, which is great when only temporary. However, over time, having chronic elevated levels of cortisol can also suppress our immune system. A weakened immune system trying to fight chronic inflammation (due to poor diet and stress, for example) can leave people highly susceptible to viruses and illnesses. This is why some people tend to catch colds, or other viruses, during high-stress seasons.
Because the role of cortisol is to prepare the body to “flight or fight” a stressor, it increases blood pressure to help deliver more oxygenated blood to the muscles to help deal with the source of stress. Chronic high levels of cortisol can also lead to plaque buildup putting people at a higher risk of a heart attack or stroke. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 861 participants, 65 and older, were followed for six years. Participants with the highest level of urinary cortisol were five times as likely to die of heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular causes over the six years follow-up, when compared with participants with the lowest cortisol levels.
Managing Holiday Stress
In an ideal world, stress would be eliminated by removing all stressors. However, this would be extremely difficult to do. Fortunately, there are many natural ways to help you prepare mentally and physically to deal with the busy holiday season. Here are a few tips:
- Yoga – stretching can help relieve tension and stress. You could even try chair yoga for a few minutes to help you slow down and relax.
- Meditation – even if you’ve never meditated before, taking 5 minutes and sitting/laying still, while focusing on slowing your breathing (4 second inhale, 4 second exhale) can help release tension.
- Aromatherapy – try lemon essential oil when feeling tired, or lavender when feeling stressed and would like to relax.
- Move – yes, doing full-hour workouts are beneficial, but it can be difficult to take this time during a busy holiday season. Doing 15-20 minute workouts can also help release some tension and give you more energy.
- Nutrition – we could do a whole post about nutrition alone!
- Focus on drinking plenty of water, at least half your body weight in ounces. If you weight 140 lbs, shoot for at least 70 ounces.
- Eat protein with meals and snacks to give you the necessary energy to handle long days of work, family, holiday shopping and planning for the holidays.
- Avoid eating too much sugar (no more than 24 grams per day,) caffeine and carbs. Eating too much of these can imbalance your hormones and blood sugar which can make you “crash.”
- Be proactive and add supplements to your diet of those nutrients that are key during winter and you can’t get through diet alone. For example, taking a Vitamin D supplement can help you avoid the winter “blues” and give you more energy to handle the hustle and bustle of the holidays. (Contact us, or consult with your doctor, to find the right supplements and dosage for you.)
We hope this information helps you manage stress, improve your health, and lets you enjoy the holiday season ahead!