5 Tips for a Stress-Free Holiday
Many of us picture ourselves drowning in a frenzy of wrapping paper, eggnog, and in-laws. But help is on the way.
Some of us cringe when we hear the words “the holidays," picturing ourselves drowning in a frenzy of wrapping paper, eggnog, and in-laws.
When I think of the holidays, excessive amounts of food and chaos comes to mind. What can I say? I grew up in an Italian family. My saint of a mother did most, if not all the cooking, cleaning, washing, scrubbing, and entertaining. I remember hearing the din of frustration coming from our kitchen, the banging of pots and pans, as I sat in fear in my bedroom. She felt powerless and overwhelmed and like she had to pull teeth to have us help her. I love my mother dearly, and what I discovered as I grew up is that much of that stress could have been alleviated with a few key tweaks.
We tend to think that stress is caused by external factors: people, things, situations, and expectations. I am thinking of the times that Uncle Jeff arrived empty-handed or Aunt Edna brought her English mastiff who went through the garbage and created his own colorful decorations on the kitchen floor.
Stress is a physiological response. The part of our brain responsible for the stress response is the amygdala, an almond-shaped nuclei located in the temporal lobes that manages our memory, decision-making, and emotions. This part of our brain has been around since the stone age, back when having a stress response meant the difference between life and death in the wild. It acts as an alarm center and tends to serve as a thorough protective mechanism, leading to an overreaction to ensure that we get the message of inherent danger. The problem is that we no longer live in the wild. Living in this state of never-ending high alert no longer serves us, and in fact, fear and worry can hold us back.
The opposing part of the brain to the amygdala is the prefrontal cortex, which takes in the information we give it, organizes it, and then judges it. It functions as the CEO of our brains. This brain center functions to calm down the amygdala during unnecessary stress, to override its overactivity and take over. The solution to excessive stress, therefore, is to train the brain to be prefrontal cortex-dominant.
So how can we stop stress in its tracks? Without getting too deep into medical jargon, something called the parasympathetic nervous system acts in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system, the one that revs us up and sets us up for fight or flight. Therefore, to blunt the stress response, we need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The best way to do this is using slow, deep breathing. It sounds simple, and it is. It is not the easiest thing in the heat of a stressful situation, but, with practice, one can reap the major benefits of this simple solution.
A useful tool that harmonizes with deep breathing is mindfulness, the practice of noticing our thoughts without judgment. Mindfulness can be honed through meditation. This may conjure up a mental image of Buddha sitting in silence for hours. But we do not need to sit cross-legged and stop our thoughts. This is a common misconception. We cannot always stop our thoughts, but we can instead bring awareness to them. Those who are new to meditation can start in small increments and with guided meditations. I started off meditating with a guided meditation from YouTube and completed just 5 minutes. After about a week, I noticed the shift in my reaction and perspective to the outer world.
As with any habit, the more we practice, the easier it becomes. Then increase the interval to 10 minutes per day. The benefits include increasing our ability to focus, keeping attention on a difficult task, feeling compassion for others, controlling our emotions, and even decreasing the perception of pain. Those who practice meditation gain more control of themselves through being more aware of their minds.
But who has time to meditate amid the crazy holiday season? Schedule it. Set the alarm for 5 minutes earlier and take the time to start the day with this practice.
Life coach Tony Robbins said quite accurately, “Whatever you focus on you feel." Focusing on what we can control is the key to success. In every moment, we can change our perspective on how we experience life. The holidays are no different.
In addition to practicing mindfulness and shifting our mindsets, here are 5 other helpful tips for a stress-free holiday season:
1. Take care of yourself first. Get plenty of rest, eat a well-balanced diet, do some form of activity, and carve out time for self-care. And remember to breathe. When we are stressed, we do not breathe deeply, which can amplify anxiety. If our bodies are
houses, our health is the foundation. Imagine having a house without a floor. Lack of self-care leaves us vulnerable to getting sick and prone to getting more irritated by little things. Keep the foundation strong to be more effective and less stressed.
2. Plan ahead, and do things in chunks. Do not feel the need to do everything in 1 day. Make a list, and select 2 things that can be done each day leading up to the big day. This provides peace of mind. I start my holiday shopping 2 months out and buy small items at a time. For example, purchase 3 candles for each niece or gloves for a son. If shopping in stores is overwhelming, shop online. Break tasks down to more easily cross items off the to-do list.
3. Delegate tasks, and get others to help. We cannot do everything alone. Can someone buy the turkey or the yams? Do the dishes? Clean the house? When we are pulled in so many directions, it becomes overwhelming. Minimize this by delegating.
4. Focus on experiences rather than things. So what if we get presents we do not want? Does it change the course of our lives if the mashed potatoes do not turn out perfectly? People will remember the experiences and how they felt, not the food or the fancy decorations. Take the kids ice skating, and do something that does not require shopping or eating. Go for a drive, and look at holiday decorations. Building memories is about the people we are with and the joy of the season.
5. Remember to laugh. Check out the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Where else can we see a squirrel in a Christmas tree or the tree catching fire because of Uncle Lewis’ stogie? Being light-hearted can boost our moods, ease tension, and even improve memory, according to a recent study.1
According to a Helpguide.org,2 article, here are some other benefits to laughing:
Laughter boosts the immune system. It decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus improving our resistance to disease.
Laughter triggers the release of endorphins. These are the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain.
Laughter protects the heart. It improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow, which can help protect against heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems.
Laughter lightens anger’s heavy load. Nothing diffuses anger and conflict faster than a shared laugh. Looking at the funny side can put problems into perspective and allow us to move on from confrontations without holding onto bitterness or resentment.
Laughter may even help us live longer. A study in Norway found that people with a strong sense of humor outlived those who do not laugh as much. The difference was particularly notable for those battling cancer.
When we can shift our focus to see the blessings around us, our attitude changes, too. Gratitude has been shown to improve our moods. We need to be grateful and count our blessings.
1. Bains GS, Berk LS, Daher N, et al. The effect of humor on short-term memory in older adults: a new component for whole-person wellness. Adv Mind Body Med. 2014;28(2):16-24.
2. Robinson L, Smith M, Segal J. Laughter is the best medicine. Helpguide.org. helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/laughter-is-the-best-medicine.htm. Updated October 2017. Accessed November 21, 2017.