Keep stress under wraps this holiday season

By James Beckerman, M.D., Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic – Cardiology, part of Providence Heart and Vascular Institute

Much has been written about the harmful effects of stress on the heart, the immune system, the digestive system, the reproductive system, the lungs, the muscles – even the skin. But if you ask me, the most devastating effect is the toll that stress takes on your mood and quality of life. Stress darkens the lens through which you view the world, which is the most important determinant of what makes you happy as a person.

Around the holidays, especially, you want that lens to be as merry and bright as possible. Yet even people who have normal stress levels most of the year can feel their spirits start to dim under the added stress of family responsibilities, financial challenges, dietary temptations, time management issues and excessive holiday expectations.

This season, don’t let stress get the best of your holidays. Here are several effective ways to help you keep stress under wraps.

Avoid your stress triggers

The first step toward a less-stressful holiday is to understand what triggers your stress, and to develop strategies ahead of time to avoid those triggers:

  • Does the financial strain of holiday expenses stress you out? Create a realistic budget and challenge yourself to get creative about sticking to it.
  • Is the prospect of holiday weight gain stressful? Stock up on veggies and nonfat yogurt dips to snack on before stepping out, or to bring to the party.
  • Do family gatherings often turn into confrontations? Find your Zen zone and change the subject around people who push your buttons.
  • Are you stressed about too much to do and too little time? Get better at saying “no.”

Practice your coping strategies

When you start to feel the signs of stress building up – the racing heart, the tension headache, the short temper, the gurgling gut or disrupted sleep – find a healthy way to blow off steam. Different things work for different people: some find it calming to take a walk, some write in a journal, and others practice forms of meditation and relaxation. Here are a few techniques to try:

Keep your balance

The holidays will try to knock you out of your healthy routines, but the more you can stick with them, the better equipped you’ll be to prevent and manage stress. Physical activity, in particular, reduces stress and the stress response, and may be the single best way to manage stress. This season, make it a priority to keep up the healthy habits that work for you the rest of the year.

If your usual habits are no longer working for you, make some changes to keep things interesting:

  • If your workout routine is getting dull, join a volleyball team, try Zumba or sign up for a fitness class.
  • If you’re sick of your daily salad, ask five friends for their favorite salad recipes.
  • If you’re bored with your walks, map out three new routes, listen to a new podcast or bring along a friend.

Just as stress can darken the lens through which you view life, so can boredom fog it over in a dull haze. Get out the Windex, clear the view, and make way for a sparkling holiday season and a fascinating new year.