While the holidays are meant to be a time of joy, they can also be a time of stress for many people because of work pressure, relationship conflicts or feeling overwhelmed by expectations.
According to a study by the American Heart Association, there is an increase in the occurrence of heart attacks and heart-related deaths during the holiday season, which may be due to stress, heavy alcohol consumption, a fatty diet or a combination of such factors.
Stress causes a number of both short-term and long-term adverse effects on the body, and it can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. It’s important to monitor stress levels, particularly during the holidays and find ways to manage stress.
Strategies for managing holiday stress:
- Set a budget to ensure all your usual expenses are accounted for, and plan for any additional holiday spending including travel plans and parties you may be hosting. Budget for what you must spend on gifts – be organized and realistic.
- Avoid temptation by limiting the amount of time you spend at stores or shopping online. Manage impulsive spending by making a list of gifts to buy and sticking to it, as well as your budget.
- Remember what is important during the holiday season in order to help manage your expectations. Hosting the perfect party or giving the perfect gift is less important than quality time spent with loved ones.
- Plan ahead. Think first before committing to any responsibility or social event. Don’t make any snap decisions and give yourself time to reflect on any proposed commitment or responsibility. You can always tell others you need to double-check your calendar before committing.
- Take some time out to recharge and refocus. Be sure that you find time to relax and recharge your body and mind.
- Keep your reflections and goal-setting positive. During the holiday season, individuals are more likely to reflect upon their achievements for the year (or lack thereof). Failures to reach certain goals such as losing weight, addressing health issues or getting a promotion at work can weigh on you at the end of the year. Instead of focusing on what went unaccomplished, try maintaining a positive outlook as you reflect and set goals for the new year.
Practice mental health self-care
- Acknowledge your feelings. The holidays bring on a variety of feelings – not all of which are joyful. If you recently experienced a loss, remind yourself that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. It’s okay to cry and express your feelings, as such expressions can often bring a sense of relief.
- Ask for help. If you feel lonely or isolated, ask for help from family, friends or members of your community. Lean on your support groups for companionship and reminders that you are not alone.
- Excessive stress raises appetites and cravings for sugary and fatty foods, and chronic drinking can lead to increased stress levels. Aim to maintain a healthy diet during the holidays to avoid weight gain and additional stress.
- If you choose to drink alcohol, keep the number of drinks to a minimum and alternate between water or club soda between alcoholic libations.
- Maintain a healthy diet by eating high-protein snacks throughout the day so you don’t over-indulge in one meal. Make simple food swaps, like eating whole-wheat bread instead of white, or brown rice instead of white. And be mindful of portion sizes, especially when enjoying seasonal treats.
Go for a walk
- Regular exercise can help lower stress levels by decreasing tension and boosting and stabilizing your mood. Exercise releases endorphins that can improve your ability to sleep and reduce stress.
- If possible, exercise outside. Being active and getting sun exposure can both lift your mood and reduce the likelihood of experiencing seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
Have some fun
- Laughter stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles and also releases endorphins. Laughter also goes a long way in helping to lighten your mood and minimize the stresses associated with this time of year.
- Watch funny movies. There are plenty of options for holiday comedy flicks, and relaxing and laughing with your family can decrease relationship tensions while increasing those happy chemicals.
Chelsea Cohen is a Licensed Professional Counselor (SPC-S) at Ascension Seton Behavioral Health.