The holidays are supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but a shocking 45 percent of Americans said they’d prefer to skip the season entirely because it brings so much financial pressure. Nearly half of those surveyed by payday loan provider Think Finance said their holiday stress levels were high or extremely high, and that was just in relation to holiday expenses.1
A study commissioned by the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council similarly revealed that “festive stress” is ruining the holidays for many, with 31 percent describing them not as joyful and festive — but frantic.2
A festive stress timeline was also revealed, showing that the stress starts rearing its ugly head around December 13, grows more severe by December 18 and peaks at the worst possible moment: on Christmas Day.
You can probably guess what most people named as one of the top sources of their stress: striving to have the perfect Christmas and working too hard to achieve it. Other top sources of holiday stress included:3
Stress can quickly turn you into a Grinch for the holidays while at the same time taking a serious toll on your physical and emotional health, influencing everything from your mood and brain function to your heart health and risk of both acute illness and chronic disease, including cancer.
When you become stressed your body also secretes cortisol and glucagon, both of which affect your blood sugar levels.4 The end result is that your body must produce more insulin to keep your blood sugar levels in check, and when you’re stressed out, your blood sugar levels will probably stay elevated much longer than they would otherwise, ultimately promoting weight gain and Type 2 diabetes.
Needless to say, having effective stress-relief tools at your disposal is priceless in terms of the emotional and physical well-being they can offer you, but many people turn to unhealthy habits to tackle stress instead.
The Blueberry Council study revealed, for instance, that 1 in 6 people consumes energy drinks to keep up with holiday chaos while 74 percent said they eat excessive amounts of unhealthy snacks to cope — then feel guilty as a result, which only adds to the tension.5 There is a better way.
The Blueberry Council (not surprisingly) recommended eating more blueberries for an energy and antioxidant boost instead of junk food — a worthy bit of advice — but it will take more than blueberries to get you through the month of December. To fight back at stress this year, try the healthy habits below, and keep them in your stress-relief arsenal not only during the holidays but all year-round.
1. Exercise — A quick high-intensity workout may be just the thing to boost your mood and relieve stress. You’ve probably heard of (and perhaps experienced) the “runner’s high” or intense mood boost that can occur after exercise. This may be due to a neurotransmitter called anandamide, sometimes known as the bliss compound, which increases in your brain after a workout.
Anandamide is a neurotransmitter and endocannabinoid produced in your brain that temporarily blocks feelings of pain and depression. It’s a derivative of the Sanskrit word “bliss,” and a deficiency is associated with increased anxiety and stress.6
Exercise also creates new, excitable neurons along with new neurons designed to release the GABA neurotransmitter, which inhibits excessive neuronal firing, helping to induce a natural state of calm.7
Exercise also boosts levels of potent brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. This may help buffer some of the effects of stress. Mind-body exercises, such as yoga, may be particularly beneficial in warding off stress.
In fact, one of the negative effects of exposure to higher stress-induced cortisol levels is cognitive deficits as you age. Research found, however, that eight weeks of yoga can improve those cognitive deficits and improve memory — a benefit gleaned because it mitigated stress levels.8
2. Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)
The beauty of EFT for stress is that you can use it anytime, anywhere, and it’s valuable for all ages, even kids. It requires no special tools and, once you learn how to do it, it can be your go-to when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
What is it? EFT is a psychological acupressure technique that’s based on the same energy meridians used in acupuncture. However, instead of stimulating the pathways with needles, EFT uses tapping with your fingertips along with voicing positive affirmations.
You can learn it yourself — we have a number of free articles, videos and tutorials on our website that will help you — or you can consult a qualified EFT practitioner to work through issues with you.
EFT is particularly powerful for treating stress because it targets your amygdala and hippocampus, which are the parts of your brain that help you decide whether or not something is a threat.9
In a study of nursing students, a population known to experience significant stress, EFT led to decreases in feelings of stress and anxiety including a decrease in physical symptoms. The researchers concluded, “Overall, findings suggested that EFT can be an effective tool for stress management and anxiety relief …”10
In another study, participants received one hourlong EFT session, which led to significant improvements in anxiety and depression, along with a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. “The decrease in cortisol levels in the EFT group mirrored the observed improvement in psychological distress,” the researchers explained.11
3. Meditation and Proper Breathing — If you’re not yet taking advantage of the health-boosting powers of meditation, there’s no time like the holidays to start! Even among people with anxiety disorder, those who learned mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques like mindfulness meditation did better under stress than those who used other stress reduction methods.12
Practicing “mindfulness” means you’re actively paying attention to the moment you’re in right now. Rather than letting your mind wander, when you’re mindful, you’re living in the moment and letting distracting thoughts pass through your mind without getting caught up in their emotional implications.
Mindfulness meditation is just one type, and may reduce stress via stress-reduction pathways in your body.13 The longer you meditate, the more benefits you may receive, as studies suggest experienced meditators have reduced stress and inflammatory responses. According to research published in Psychoneuroendocrinology:14
“[E]xperienced meditators reported higher levels of psychological factors associated with well-being and resilience. These results suggest that the long-term practice of meditation may reduce stress reactivity and could be of therapeutic benefit in chronic inflammatory conditions characterized by neurogenic inflammation.”
Meditation can be done right at home with very little formal “training” necessary. Simply sit quietly, perhaps with some soothing music, breathe rhythmically, and focus on something such as your breathing, a candle, a mantra or just being there, fully aware, in the moment.
Applying Buteyko breathing, which involves breathing through your nose, not your mouth, also really helps to calm the mind and get into deep states of relaxation.
4. Proper Sleep — It’s virtually impossible to cope with stressful situations if you’re not well rested, so getting quality sleep is especially important during the holidays. Lack of quality sleep is known to elevate physiological markers of stress, such as cortisol levels, while also exaggerating the neuroendocrine effects of psychosocial stress.15
It’s a catch-22 of sorts, because if you’re already feeling stressed, it can make sleep more elusive. If you’re having trouble sleeping, I suggest reading my Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep for 33 tips on improving your sleep.
Getting back to the basics of improving your sleeping environment is important, including sleeping in complete darkness and avoiding exposure to blue light, including LEDs, after sunset. Wearing blue-blocking glasses is a simple way to achieve this.
5. Optimize Vitamin D — What do your vitamin D levels have to do with your stress levels? Vitamin D plays a role in facilitating serotonin production, a brain hormone associated with mood elevation.16 When your serotonin levels are low, you may be susceptible to stress. In fact, a study on mice revealed that vitamin-D-deficient mice were more vulnerable to the effects of social stress.17
The best way to optimize your vitamin D level to the recommended 60 to 80 ng/ml is through sensible sun exposure, but for many, oral supplementation will be necessary as well, especially during the winter. The only way to accurately assess your need for supplementation is to measure your vitamin D level regularly.
Also keep in mind that if you take high-dose vitamin D, you may also need to increase your intake of calcium, magnesium and vitamin K2, as these four nutrients work in tandem and rely on sufficient amounts of each to work properly.
6. Tend to Your Gut — The greatest concentration of serotonin is found within your intestines, not your brain, and the state of your gut health can have a significant effect on that of your mood and anxiety level. For instance, probiotics, or beneficial bacteria, have been found to reduce psychological stress in patients about to undergo surgery.18
Even severe and chronic mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, might be eliminated through the use of certain probiotics such as Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifdobacterium longum, which have been shown to have a calming influence in part by dampening stress hormones.19
To tend to your gut health, eat plenty of fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, natto and kefir and reduce your intake of processed foods and sugars. If you don’t eat fermented foods on a regular basis, a probiotic supplement can be useful.
7. Essential Oils, Especially Lavender — Sometimes sending stress packing can be as simple as adding a few drops of your favorite essential oil to your bathwater, massage oil or diffuser. Lavender essential oil is especially useful when you need to calm your nerves.
“Several animal and human investigations suggest anxiolytic [anxiety reducing], mood stabilizer, sedative, analgesic and anticonvulsive and neuroprotective properties for lavender,” researchers explained.20
A component in lavender oil, linalool, has also been found to produced relaxation effects in mice similar to those produced by benzodiazepines (antianxiety drugs) but without their motor impairment and sedation side effects.21
If you enjoy the scent of lavender, this can be your go-to when you need a quick dose of calm — try rubbing a drop of diluted oil on your pulse points when the holidays give you that frantic feeling.
If you don’t enjoy lavender, there are many other essential oils to choose from, many with equally calming effects, including bergamot, chamomile, rose, clary sage and vetiver. For more information on the properties of individual essential oils, be sure to check out my Ultimate Guide to Herbal Oils.
If you find that the holidays have lost their joy and magic, leaving you with nothing but a giant to-do list and debt come January, it may be time to get back to the basics and celebrate a holiday focused on gratitude, friends and family instead of decorations, presents and obligations.
By cutting back on your holiday demands (many of which are likely self-imposed), you can reduce the source of your stress and free up mental and physical energy, along with time and financial resources, to devote to the things that make you happy.
Oftentimes, you’ll find that less really is more, and the simplest activities — time spent playing board games or taking a walk in the woods with family — are the ones you’ll remember and value most. Make a point to protect the holiday traditions that truly bring you joy and give yourself permission to discard those that don’t.