By Beth Proudfoot, LMFT
One helpful way to look at stress is to think of it as a buildup in your body of the chemicals your brain puts out every time you have to make a decision or have any kind of emotion (but especially the negative ones like fear, anger, jealousy, sadness). Problems arise when the level of these chemicals in your body reach high levels, like when you’re trying to manage all of our many responsibilities AND clean for guests, organize a giant meal, etc. Here are a few strategies to try to keep your stress lower this holiday season:
1. Exercise. Stress hormones build up in your muscles, and exercise lets them go. To keep your general stress level low, exercise in a repetitive way (like jogging, hiking, or swimming) at the same time every day. You can work exercise into your holiday routine in small doses, too. Jog with the dog when you’re taking her out, park at the most distant spot at the mall and then take the stairs instead of the elevator. A small amount of exercise is good for insomnia, too. Try 10 windmills, 10 situps, 10 leg-raises and then lay down to sleep. Don't do too much, though! Exercise can also wake you up.
2. Relax. For lowering your stress in general, finding some way to deeply relax for about 20 minutes at the same time every day works best. To increase your focus, or calm anxiety on a stressful day, try sitting in a quiet place and bringing your attention to your breath. You don't have to change your breathing, just notice it as it goes in and out for a few minutes.
Many people use Facebook, texting or other "screen time" to relax...unfortunately, these activities actually add to the level of stress hormones in your body. Sorry! Playing music can reduce stress though. Sit and let some Mozart wash its way through your body. Or, crank it up and dance while you wash those holiday dishes!
3. Laugh. A big belly laugh is one of the best things you can do for stress. Laughter makes your immune system more efficient, lights up your whole brain, helps you to learn more, even improves your heart and lungs. So, if you can't help going to your computer, make your last stop U-Tube for some funny videos.
One of the best things that all of the mind-body research has shown is that having a sense of humor is an essential life skill for both reducing stress and making friends. So, if you're stymied at every turn in your shopping and cooking and dealing with extended family, try to take a step back and see if you can tell a funny story about your woes.
4. Stay in gratitude. Gratitude is the positive emotion which can't live in the same space as worry, anger, grief, or fear. So, if your negative emotions are triggering negative thoughts...which trigger your stress hormone response and make things even worse...try interjecting some gratitude. Don’t save your thank you’s for Thanksgiving. Take time throughout the season to think of what you're really grateful for. Picture it in your mind and try to bring in all of your senses. You'll find the negative emotion can't compete. One great exercise to reduce your general stress level is to write down 5 things you're grateful for every night before you go to sleep. There have been many studies on this, and it turns out that it's one of the best things you can do for your stress, your relationships, and your life in general!
It's not going to be a “happy” holiday season if Mom’s stressed and crabby. So take your stress level and your health seriously and try to figure out how to streamline, let go, and delegate. A lot of people have already figured this out, which is why the restaurants are full, the grocery stores have started catering, and more dads, granddads and kids are doing their share to help during the holidays. Relax, laugh, tell stories, and be grateful. Sounds like a fun holiday, doesn’t it?