Stress Affects Your Whole Body
Here’s why (and how) you should keep stress in check over the holidays.
When many of us think of the holiday season, we envision loving gatherings spent with family and friends, much-hoped for gifts, comforting food (and lots of it!), and time off of work.
But the reality is often very different.
The holiday season can also mean family arguments, too many commitments, rushing around, overspending, unrealistic expectations, and emotional difficulties as some of us think about deceased family members or other traumas associated with special occasions.
The result? Stress levels jump, and once the new year rolls around, we feel like we need a vacation to recover from our holiday.
According to a report on holiday stress by the American Psychological Association (APA), women are more likely than men to experience stress over the holidays, as they are traditionally the ones to cook, clean, shop, decorate, and pull off a big Christmas dinner. Lower-income families are also at risk of increased stress levels, as they struggle with pressures to buy gifts or provide the perfect Christmas experience, despite not being able to afford it. Figuring out a work-life balance over the holidays can also cause tension.
Throw in the fact that the holidays are generally a time to eat, eat, and eat some more, up our alcohol intake, ignore our workout schedule, and sleep more or laze around? Then we get hit with guilt and feeling physically gross on top of all that mental and physical exhaustion.
In a study of 2,000 adults in the U.S. conducted by OnePoll, a whopping 88 percent of respondents said the holidays were the most stressful time of the year, and a survey from the APA found that 36 percent of respondents experience sadness “sometimes or often” over the holidays, while 52 percent experience irritability.
“Stress affects all (body systems), including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems," according to the APA.
So what does all that stress do?
The short answer? A lot.
Stress impacts our entire body (including our brain). Headaches, digestive issues, racing heart, and difficulty sleeping can are all symptoms of stress. And chronic or long-term stress can have even more severe health consequences.
To our bodies, stress means there is a threat. And what do we do when we feel threatened? We flip into the fight or flight response. Cortisol, epinephrine, and adrenaline flood the body, readying us to take action. Our heart beats faster and stronger, pumping more blood to our organs. Our breathing quickens. Our muscles tense. Our liver produces more glucose. Our stomach may be upset, and we feel nauseous—our appetite changes. Digestion gets disrupted, causing either diarrhea or constipation, and we don’t absorb nutrients the way we usually do.
Many of these responses would be needed if there were an actual threat. But when the body and brain go into overdrive for a perceived threat when there isn’t one, and, more critically, for a prolonged period, our health can suffer, causing both mild and severe symptoms.
Acute health issues due to stress can include:
- Increased risk of stroke or heart attack
- High blood pressure
- Decreased sex drive and impotence
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Unhealthy weight loss or gain
- Panic attacks
- Migraines and chronic pain
- Increased rates of anxiety and depression
- Ulcers, heartburn, acid reflux
- Depressed immune system
- Irritable bowel syndrome
How do we cope?
In a word? Poorly. Habitual behavior takes a nosedive during the holidays, making it challenging to make healthy choices. Being out of a routine, pressure to make things perfect, time with family where there may be an unhealthy dynamic, and a financial crunch can cause us to check out and give up. Instead of doing things that could lower our stress level, we turn to something like:
- Comfort eating and overeating
- Social isolation
- Alcohol and other substances
- Laziness and a lack of exercise
And guess what? While we may feel temporary relief when drinking three whiskey sours and eating a bowl of chips and dip, we’re not doing our brain or body any favors.
The ongoing stress of still living in a pandemic isn’t relenting—a recent poll by the APA found that “one in three survey respondents report feeling stressed about the coronavirus pandemic and that they have difficulty making even fundamental decisions such as what to wear or what to eat.” So it’s easy to see why we choose binge-watching The Witcher with some gingerbread men and eggnog over a salad and a walk in the snow.
As the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health says, “Stress can take over your life.”
So what can you do?
You can do a lot to reduce stress, deal with it when it comes, and avoid it altogether (well, avoid some of it anyway).
For Evan Lee, FitTrack’s Head of Fitness Programming, it’s all about “connecting awareness to action.”
He advises planning, being honest about what the holiday season entails, and setting yourself up for success. He notes that the FitTrack smart scales and new premium MyHealth+ app give you a baseline of data for your unique body and then show you what you can do with that information to set and reach goals, stay motivated and get (or stay) on track.
The app “has all the pillars you need to be successful,” says Lee.
The new app even includes a workout program that emphasizes body and mind awareness, incorporating yoga, breathing, stretching, and balance into your exercise routine.
You can take many other proactive steps to keep your minds at ease during a stressful holiday season. Here are our favorites:
Top 15 Tips to Reduce Stress During the Holidays
- Stick to your routine. Lee says doing your best to maintain healthy habits can keep you feeling good and give your body and mind what it needs to function properly. This way, you can celebrate the big day guilt-free, easing emotional stress and enjoying the people around you.
- Be kind to yourself and celebrate small wins. The holidays are extra stressful. Acknowledge that, and pat yourself on the back when you make a healthy choice.
- Everything in moderation. Lee says to forget about the idea of “good and bad” foods. Instead, choose well most of the time and then indulge guilt-free.
- Listen to your unique body. Our app can track your resting metabolic rate, heart rate, hydration levels, and more. If you notice things changing, it may indicate that you need to rest or give yourself more sleep, a healthy snack, or practice a meditation exercise.
- Track your food. Using a journal, meal planner, or the MyHealth+ app, keep track of what you’re eating, so you’ll know what you’re missing and can give your body what it needs. Focus on foods that can boost your mood and support emotional health, such as foods rich in omega-3’s (like salmon and walnuts), as well as dark leafy greens, lean protein, berries, avocados, and drinking plenty of water.
- Get enough sleep.
- If family gatherings are difficult or upsetting, limit them as much as possible, or opt-out altogether.
- Stick to a budget to avoid buyer’s remorse when that credit card bill arrives.
- Try mindfulness. Deep breathing, being present and focusing on the moment help ground you in real life, rather than fretting about the past or future.
- Get outside. There’s tons of research showing that being in nature is good for our mental health.
- Say no. You don’t have to do everything.
- Exercise. Stick to what you know if it’s easiest, or you may want to try something new that’s active but still lets you relax. For example, yoga, an easy hike, stretching, or easy laps in an indoor pool, can motivate you to move your body while still giving yourself a break.
- Release expectations, take shortcuts and give yourself some “me” time.
- Limit alcohol.
- Emphasize experiences over things. Time spent with people you love doing something as simple as playing a board game, baking cookies (getting your hands a little messy can be a great sensory experience that promotes calmness), or going for a walk to look at the lights can create good memories and promote feelings of togetherness and wellbeing.
Respecting and loving yourself means taking care of your physical health, as well as your emotional wellbeing. Taking positive steps that are good for your brain and your body will help protect you from situational stress, and the effects stress can have on your health in the long term—during the holiday season and beyond.