Is life stressing you out?
We all have stress and it comes and goes in varying degrees and from multiple sources. This time of year, it often increases. I happen to love the holidays; fun cooking and craft projects with my kids, an abundance of friend and family gatherings, cool crisp days that require tea or hot cocoa… Mmmmmm. But, I know this is not the case for everyone.
And whether you love the holidays, or dread them (or are somewhere in between), chances are, they come with an additional helping of stress: willing some extra money to magically appear for presents; fending off yummy treats and those extra pounds; finishing work projects in time for the holidays; family gatherings with your crazy, or wonderful (or both) family and in-laws; fitting in “required” holiday parties and other events; or the feeling of loneliness that seeps into our souls if we're having a hard day and everyone else is frolicking gaily. Try as we might, it’s easy for this time of year to get out of control, which inevitably leads to more stress.
You always hear people touting the importance of managing your stress, and offering those helpful little tips like “Stay Positive” (um, yea, thanks for that), but here are some reasons WHY it’s important, and my own helpful little tips for how to achieve perfect harmony…or something like that.
Stress (whether sudden or chronic) plays a major part in your immune system and cognitive function  . It negatively impacts blood pressure, cholesterol levels, brain chemistry and blood sugar levels. It creates a constant “fight or flight” response in your body, which in turn overworks and fatigues your adrenal glands. This can then lead to autoimmune disorders, fatigue, and compromised emotional health like depression. Stress has also been linked to cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Whew! Have I stressed you out enough yet? No? Ok, I’ll go on…
One of the most interesting things about stress is that it’s also highly contagious. Similar to happiness, but in the negative the more you’re around stressed out people, the more stress you will feel as well. And this doesn’t just have to do with those you know or are in close contact with, like your family and coworkers (although I’m sure they can stress you out plenty). It’s anybody you come into contact with and observe. You can be watching a reality TV show where the participants are under stress, and your body will respond like you’re under stress as well. Ever wonder why so many confrontations happen between strangers shopping on Black Friday and not the rest of the year? They’re all feeding off of each other’s stress, and in turn that fight or flight reaction is coming out full strength as they turn around and sock the person behind them for trying to get the last Tomas the Train before they do.
On the flipside, happiness is also contagious and even more so than stress. It’s also been shown to extend out to 3 degrees of separation. For example, you’re happy and flash a golden smile at your neighbor while on your morning walk, who in turn passes some of that happiness onto their spouse with an extra hug, who then greets their coworker with an exceptionally bright hello at the office, making the coworkers day seem a little brighter.
Bottom line? Surround yourself with happy, calm people and try to avoid those who cast a dark cloud everywhere they go (or only visit them when you’re feeling particularly excellent to try and help spread some of your happiness their way).
The other interesting thing about stress is that chronic stress is largely self-inflicted. Sudden stress comes from an external event (death of a loved one, car accident, etc.), which we have little to no control over in the moment. However, chronic stress is the stress that lingers or comes from the day to day, and so often we hold onto this stress and forget to let it go. I’m not saying that the day to day (financial issues, relationships, opinionated children, or work) can’t be stressful, but how we respond to them is our choice, and that determines if the stress from our daily lives sticks around, or evaporates into the night.
So the next time you get that lovely advice to “Stay Positive”, know that what they’re really saying is “make the choice to let your stress go”. Take ownership and control of the pieces that matter to you, and let go of the rest. Some of us have a harder time than others at letting go of those pesky pieces we don’t have control over, and in my opinion, finding your way of doing that is the key to reducing your stress. Whether it’s getting out for some fresh air and exercise, taking a nap, reading a book, playing with your dog or having a cup of tea, find something that allows you to quiet your mind, take deep breaths, reframe the situation if necessary, and let go of the control you want, but don’t have. We all like to walk around thinking of ourselves as flexible and compromising individuals. But the truth is, our level of stress is likely positively correlated to our inability to quiet our mind and stay positive about events in our lives, even when they’re challenging.
Stress relief doesn’t have to take hours of your time, and really, as you practice and find the things that work for you, they can be integrated into your daily life, and into almost everything you do. Here are some to try:
1. Just Breath. It sounds simple, but most people will go through a whole day without noticing their breathing patterns. There are different breathing techniques that can help to focus your breath, and calm your body. This can help regulate your nervous system and make sure your providing your body with the oxygen it needs.
2. Exercise regularly. Exercise has an anti-depressant effect on our mind and body. And studies have shown that during times of high stress, those who exercised regularly had significantly less physical symptoms of stress than those who didn’t.
3. Spend time in nature. People who live in more green areas show and report less stress than those who don’t. And the effect is immediate. Even a few minutes outside gazing at the trees and taking deep breaths of fresh air can help you reduce the harmful effects of stress.
4. Learn to meditate. 10 minutes of quieting your mind each day can help to induce a relaxing state of mind and can help you weed out the noise from the things that are important to you.
5. Eat well . Around the holidays it’s so easy to get inundated with junk food and ‘treats’. But a healthy gut helps us fight bacteria and viruses, and eating the right food and in the right way (sitting, not rushing around) not only helps with this, but also boosts our psychological well-being and mood.
6. Connect with loved ones. Even with the increase in social events during this time of year, it’s easy to feel disconnected from the people who matter most to us as we’re all rushing around at top speed. Make sure to set aside time to enjoy the people who matter. Schedule a cup of coffee with a friend, plan a date night with your partner, or go for a bike ride with your child.
7. Get Sleep. Trouble sleeping and increased stress can be a vicious cycle. Not getting enough sleep can lead to irritability, and an increased stress response. Increased stress in turn can lead to insomnia as your mind is racing and unable to stay quiet. Make sure you get enough sleep over the holidays, so those little stressors stay…well…little.
8. And yes, stay positive. Make a list of things you’re grateful for (maybe that even includes your sometimes annoying in-laws and their weird holiday habits), smile a little extra, and look at life through an optimistic lens.
So for these holidays, remember that it’s ok to relinquish control, to let things slide, to not be perfect. Go ahead and laugh out loud, be goofy with your kids, give someone a hug (or two), sip a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and take the time to enjoy yourself. You might find that the holidays can actually be a perfectly stress free and happy time of year! Well, mostly.