It's that time of year again, when the holiday "hype" is rising. Unfortunately, for many of us, the dizzying demands of this time of year can also cause a significant rise in stress. It's no secret that the holidays also coincide with the beginning of cold and flu season. But what may not be as evident is the significant role all that unmanaged stress can play in your physical and even mental health; especially at this time of the year.
To help you recognize and prepare for common stressors that could dampen your holiday spirit, we reached out to Elly Haddad, Founder of the Nashwell network of professional Integrative Nutrition Coaches and Mod member.Elly sees the negative impacts of stress a lot during the holiday season. She designed her seasonal workshop - "Om for the Holidays" - to help people identify their own holiday stressors and develop techniques to create calm in the midst of the chaotic holiday season.
The Problem with Stress
Holidays can be a reminder of family tensions, strained relationships or financial concerns. Many of us set unrealistic expectations of ourselves and strain with over-taxed schedules with decorating, gift shopping, holiday cooking and more social parties and events.
Ever spend hours on a Pinterest project only to have it implode? What about a fight with your spouse about how much to spend on gifting? Do you find yourself more irritated, even raging, at the increased traffic? When experiencing these types of stress, how often do you run as fast as you can, lift something amazingly heavy, or have to fight off an attacker?
Simply defined, stress is your body's way of responding to any kind of external influence. The influence can be a physical situation in which you find yourself. But, the stressor response can also be triggered by your thoughts or emotions.
"Our bodies don’t know the difference between the 'being chased by a wild animal' stress that historically kept us alive, and the modern day-to-day 'I’m stuck in traffic and late for another appointment' type of stress we more often encounter today," explains Elly.
No matter what the external stressor, your body responds by releasing chemicals (in the form of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol) into your blood. These hormones affect your brain and muscles, increasing your response time and strength. This can be a good thing if you're in immediate physical danger and need to run fast or fight hard for three minutes, but when you are stuck in your car, sitting at your desk, or at the dining table, you are not doing anything physical in response to these heightened states of alert.
"Throw in the caffeine-induced shots of adrenaline from a coffee & and the sugar rush of holiday cookies/fudge on top of that, and we are creating an atmosphere ripe for illness," Elly adds. "This is a very simple explanation of why doctors believe that so many ailments today are somehow related to stress. According to the CDC, the estimate is eighty to ninety percent."
There's another aspect to all this stress that makes it even more damaging to your health. While all that energy is being directed toward surviving what you're body has interpreted to be an immediate danger, other important physiological functions, like immune function, digestion, and cellular repair, shut down.
Haddad uses a battleship analogy to explain it to workshop participants.
"On the ship, each shipmate has a task - manning the engines, washing laundry, peeling potatoes for example. When things are calm, shipmates are focused on the seemingly more mundane tasks at hand; ensuring the ship operates smoothly," she says. "But when the ship is under attack, all hands are on deck. Everyone is focused on fighting the enemy or getting away. That leaves no one to complete the important tasks that must be done to ensure the ship operates smoothly behind the scenes. That's when things start to fall apart."
Your body is like that ship. Your internal systems - the immune system, the nervous systems, digestion, etc. - work holistically to optimize your health and keep things running smoothly. When they're barraged by the external stressors of the holidays those same systems are required to attend to that external attack, leaving your body unable to manage your day-to-day regular health. That's when you're most vulnerable to viruses and sickness and other types of system-breakdowns."
This kind of chronic stress can have devastating effects to your long-term health. A growing body of research links chronic stress has been linked to memory problems, compromised and/or overactive immune systems, clogged arteries, heart attacks and cancer.
Caring for Yourself and Reducing Holiday Stress
We've already mentioned a few common stressors you should be on the lookout for during this time of year. In her workshop, Haddad helps participants examine ten key areas that can quickly spin out of control or become neglected. She encourages people to consider their level of satisfaction in each area.
Healthy Food Choices
Ability to say "No"
"Most stress is the result of feeling like your life or your circumstances are out of control in one of these areas," says Elly.
Techniques for Preventing and Managing Stress
Once you've defined what triggers your stress, you're in a better position to minimize or eliminate those triggers from your daily life. Finding even one area of your life where you can start to regain a sense of control will have a positive effect on every area of your life.
"When you feel out of control, it's often because you haven't been taking care of yourself. Each of us have certain minimum requirements we need in order to function at our best. It could be something as simple as scheduling a 15-minute walk in the woods to reconnect with nature, or an outing with a close friend to chat. Others might need to carve out a few hours or even days of quiet time amidst all the holiday parties and commitments," says Elly.
She recommends spending some time considering what your needs are in each of these areas and writing them down in a list of "Daily Minimum Requirements." When you sense yourself feeling out of sorts, read through your list. There's probably something on there that you've been neglecting.
"Just getting back to those basics and getting centered in yourself can relieve an amazing amount of stress," Haddad says.
While ensuring that you are attending to your own needs during the holiday season, you may still encounter situations that trigger your flight or fight response and send your hormones raging. Haddad teaches a range of relaxation techniques that have been proven to help you relax and return to your center. Here are a few of her favorites:
Breathe: Breathing allows you to take a mental pause from your current situation but there are also a physiological benefits. Breathing stretches the vagus nerve, one of 12 cranial nerves that extends from the brainstem to the abdomen and runs through your heart, esophagus and lungs. This nerve, which commands unconscious body procedures like brain function, air intake, heart rate and food digestion becomes tense. You might experience this as a "knot in your stomach", the inability to think clearly or feelings of suffocation. Deep breathing actually has the effect of stretching the vagus nerve and causing release. Take two or three deep, slow breaths that fill your lungs and belly and hold each for about a second to begin achieving a release.
Contract/Relax: Most of us hold stress in certain areas of our bodies. Common areas include the shoulders, neck, stomach. Unfortunately, we've become out of tune with our bodies and often don't realize that it's sending us stress signals.
To start connecting with your body's natural states, lay flat, face up on the ground arms and legs splayed out comfortably as if you're going to rest. Contract your entire body as much as you can for a few seconds, then let go and relax as much as you can. The contrast will not only help you start to release your stress, but it can teach you where you hold stress and help you understand what stressed and normal feel like in your body.
The Body Scan: Once you start to become tuned-in to how your body holds stress, you can perform a quick survey of your body from head-to-toe anytime you sense discomfort. You can then work to consciously relax those areas that are beginning to tighten, triggering your stress responses.
Yoga: A regular practice can help prevent stress. Elly is a certified Vinyasa instructor and teaches her workshop participants a selection of Vinyasa Flow and restorative poses that are focused on bringing calmness and centeredness to your being. Flow is focused on the root chakra which is located at the base of the spine and grounds your being. Next time you're feeling tense, Elly suggests trying one of these poses:
Feel It: Finally, Elly suggests that sometimes the best way to rid yourself of damaging stress, allow yourself to feel whatever it is your feeling. If you're sad, cry. If you're angry, scream. But then move forward into something else.
"The key is to allow it to happen without attaching a judgment or story to it," she says. "The important thing is that you get that damaging energy out of your body."
What stresses you out most during the holiday season? What go to tips can you share to decompress and take care of yourself in the flurry of the season?
Elly Haddad offers "Om for the Holidays" and other workshops and yoga classes focused on stress reduction for private or corporate groups. Workshop locations vary and can be provided on site at your office. For more information or to request one-on-one work with Elly, contact her through her website, www.elementalfit.com.
Tammy Hart is a marketing consultant who helps startups and small businesses establish marketing game plans that create meaningful customer connections. She draws on an extensive background in content marketing, content development and art to develop results-oriented, cost-effective marketing strategies that are doable.