Holidays are not the only time of year we feel stress, but if normal stress is like stepping on a gas pedal, during the holidays you’ll likely have a lead foot. It may not be obvious, but we all feel stress, and because it’s rooted in how your body is designed, you can learn to control it.
As the holidays approach, it helps to gain some perspective. By understanding how our bodies handle stress, and following these five tips to manage it, you can take charge of your body and your mind.
Something Scary Is Coming — Get Ready
When our motivation is low, stress can be a good thing. It gets us off the couch and cleaning the gutters, or inspires us to tidy up before the in-laws arrive. But as stress piles on, it gets harder to get things done and can turn into panic. The reason is simple: It’s how our bodies work.
That “stress” feeling — the clenching of your stomach, the sweating, the fast heart rate, the shallow breathing — has a purpose. If you’re in a forest and stumble upon a bear, your body won’t be concerned about digesting dinner. Instead, your body’s going to put all of its energy into powering your muscles to either flee or fight.
That’s the fight-or-flight mechanism, and it’s pretty universal in the animal kingdom. First, your brain recognizes a threat — that bear, your debt or your overbearing mother — and it immediately sends electric signals to your adrenal gland to release hormones: fast-acting adrenaline and noradrenaline, plus longer-lasting cortisol.
The hormones start a chain of events that cause your body to prioritize defense mechanisms at the expense of nearly everything else. Sugar gets released into your muscles for a burst of power, but your immune system is told to take a break. Your heart rate spikes to send more blood to your limbs, but your stomach tightens and your breathing grows shallow and quick.
As even mundane stresses overwhelm you, you may have a panic attack that causes shaking, extreme nausea and fear. Even if stress never grows to that level, if it’s constant, it keeps you well-flooded with cortisol and the effects become difficult to shake.
From a pure survival perspective, some things just aren’t so important when your life is on the line. Digesting food when you’re about to die seems a little unnecessary, so your body shuts down your whole digestive tract. The body also considers the immune system non-essential when under immediate threat, so it also shuts down. But over time, if you don’t have periods of calm to allow the hormones to flush, your systems take a hit. It’s no mystery why stress makes it easier for us to get sick.
[See: 10 Ways to Break a Bad Mood.]
The Threat Is Gone — Now You Can Relax
To counter all that activity, your body has a counter-system that slams on the brakes. Stress is the gas, relaxation is the brakes, both of them directly tied to the chemicals coursing through our veins and the electrical signals transmitting from our brains.
Just like the threat triggered a chemical release, relaxation triggers automatic systems that counteract the hormones and bring your body back into balance. And just as you can use mental stress to physically motivate you, you can use your physical body to calm your mind.
We’ve all heard it, but it actually works. It has to. It’s how your body was built. When you slow your breathing, your lungs send electrical signals to your brain that shut down all the chaos of your stress response. You consciously take control of your body’s systems. You may even be able to slow your heart rate if you get good at it. While all animals have fight or flight, this ability to tell ourselves to cool down appears to be uniquely human.
Even if your mind and body have undergone physical change from chronic stress — you frequently catch colds, you’re always tired, you struggle with heartburn — you can reverse those effects by regularly telling your body to relax and directly forcing change with deeper, slower breathing. You have a lot more control than you think you do!
5 Tips to Manage Stress
So with all of that in mind, here are five tips that will help you get through the holidays and survive throughout the year:
1. Control your breathing.
This one trick can cheat the whole system. If you tell your body to slow your breathing, it has no choice but to relax. This is the first step in taking control, no matter the threat.
2. Keep an open mind and a sense of humor, and try to be a little more flexible.
Keeping a cool head can transform your holidays. You already know that your uncle is going to talk politics or your schedule will get backed up, so accept it and even make light of it. Not that you should make fun of anyone or have a joke at someone’s expense, but having some confidence and the ability to laugh can help you get through a tough moment and maintain control of how you feel, no matter what anyone else does.
3. Have an honest look at your finances, and make a clear budget.
Financial stress is universal. Whether related to actual money in the bank, a challenging workload or a difficult boss, financial stress can be the scariest threat many of us face. Being honest about what resources you have and confident in managing your and your family’s expectations will remove one of the biggest challenges you’re likely to face. Sit down with a cup of coffee, and honestly think about what you can do with the money you already have. Come up with creative ways to show how you feel — with meaning and with love, but not necessarily with cost.
4. Stop with the unrealistic expectations.
The expectations we put on ourselves and others set us up for disappointment. First recognize that you have no control over someone’s bad mood, even if they shirk responsibility and try to blame you for it. But you can control your own mood. Walk away, let conflict pass and get back to breathing. Second, you are allowed to say no — to your family, to your friends and to yourself. Do only what you can comfortably fit into your schedule. If you think a task will take two hours, give yourself four and recognize it’s the only thing you may do that day. Sometimes I actually walk patients through saying the word no — physically forming the sound. It can take practice, but you need it; you don’t want to be thinking no, and then when the time comes, you buckle and say yes. Saying no does not mean you don’t care about someone. It means your body and mind have met their limits. Be open and honest, and genuinely express your feelings. You’re allowed to be tired.
5. Take stock of what you have.
It’s hard to appreciate what we have when we live in a commercial society, a plentiful country where so much is available for us to spend our money on, but it’s a double-edged sword. We often set an expectation that when we get a particular item we’ll be happy, but that fades almost immediately and we start looking for the next thing to buy to make us happy. We’re constantly changing the criteria for happiness: You might be excited about finding a larger apartment, but you may soon start looking for a house. However, gratitude can reverse that trend. We know from research that if you take time every day to reflect on one or two things you’re happy about — whether possessions or people or the beauty of a sunset — you can start to shift your brain toward peace and away from constantly scanning the horizon for what comes next. That scanning was great when we had to keep an eye out for threats, but in a modern world, it can keep you from realizing how much you truly have. In fact, one study showed that writing down three positive things each day can bring you a sense of satisfaction in as little as 21 days. Less than five minutes a day, and you can begin to focus on what — and who — really matters to you.
As you struggle with stress, you may find you’re losing sleep or rapidly gaining (or losing) weight, or you can’t get yourself out of bed on time. These are signs of clinical depression, and counselors can help give you the tools to help, training you in such powerful techniques as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Managing stress may seem difficult at first, but recognize that it’s what your body was made to do. You have all the tools to slow your breathing, then your heart and ultimately your mind. Instead of robbing the present with fears of the future, you can learn to control your perspective, and with it, the holidays and your life.
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