Few people would disagree with the idea that this, right now, the holiday season, is one of the most stressful times of year for the majority of people, particularly we matriarchs. Holiday planning, traveling, participating in religious festivities, shopping, cooking, cleaning, decorating, “mandatory” family time and making arrangements for children who are home from school are just a few of the potentially joy-sucking facets of the holiday season. And that’s not even everything that’s on the holiday-stress-inducing-list! It seems to just keep going and going. Not to mention everything must be absolutely perfect. Biting your nails this very moment? Okay, in case you don’t know what’s going on or you’ve never experienced holiday stress (which is impossible or at least highly improbable since I’m feeling stressed just talking about holiday stress), let’s take a step back. What is stress, what causes it, who does it affect, how does it impact our health and quality of life, and most importantly, how do we get rid of [or at least minimize] it, even deal with it during this holiday season?
According to The American Institute of Stress (who knew?), stress is defined as the “non-specific (positive or negative) response of the body to any demand for change”. This essentially means that some demands for change are good, healthy, and normal; however, other, more extensive demands can be harmful and potentially damaging to our body in a variety of ways. There are many ways in which harmful stressors can affect our bodies. The University of Maryland Medical Center categorizes stressors into several different classifications: external, internal, acute (ahem, “the holidays”), and chronic stressors. Everyone is affected by stress at some point (or several points more likely) in their lives. Based on the 2011 survey done by the American Psychological Association (APA), most Americans report feeling moderate-to-high stress levels, while 44% of adults report that their stress level has increased in the past 5 years. Additionally, the survey results report that money, work (concerns about job loss), and the economy are major sources of stress. What else did the report find? Stress eating. With 39% of adults report overeating or eating unhealthy foods due to stress. Another holiday-specific survey conducted in 2006 noted that the leading yuletide stressors included lack of time, lack of money, commercialism, pressure of giving and receiving gifts, family gatherings, dieting, credit card debt, travel and children. Craving another snickerdoodle?
And the impacts health impacts of holiday stress? As you might have already guessed, these impacts are not of the positive variety. The National Institute of Mental Health asserts that chronic, untreated stress can lead to anxiety, heart disease, stroke, gastrointestinal problems, exacerbation of diabetes and eating disorders, sleep disturbances, sexual and reproductive dysfunction, substance abuse, decreased immunity and many other not-so-pleasant medical complications.
So where is the good news in this holiday-bummer-blog? Stress is treatable and can be partially or even completely avoidable! That’s fantastic, right? While there are many resources for fighting off the holiday stress, the Cleveland Clinic’s Emotional Wellbeing some great (and evidence based) ideas. For starters, are your expectations for the holidays realistic? Cleveland clinic also recommends setting a budget for gift giving and ask people what they want rather than scouring the earth for the perfect gift. Take time to plan family gatherings and designate family responsibilities for food, gifts and decorations. The APA also offers advice that includes taking time for yourself (this includes exercising and personal rituals), volunteering, and finally, seeking support for the activities that you are undertaking. The American Heart Association has suggestions on how to “manage holiday stress without hurting your heart.” And lest we forget the stress eating? The Mayo Clinic enlightens us on gaining control of emotional eating.
The holidays don’t have to be a burden (and probably were never intended to be). Set your priorities, manage your expectations, and ask for help. Recognize that this time of year is particularly stressful for everyone; and remember, a simple expression of gratitude can be a very powerful way to spread holiday cheer (it’s free and easy, too). So whatever you are celebrating in the coming weeks, make every effort to actually enjoy it!
This blog co-written by Emily Hairfield, MPH, Clinical Research Assistant (firstname.lastname@example.org).