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    by Health By Principle

    Shake off the Holiday Stress!

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    By Rachel Welch 

    Be gone, stress! 

     

    If you are haunted by stress each holiday season, then this is the post for you. We will explore how to make that seasonal, “Scrooge” of stress nothing more than a ghost of seasons past. 

     

    The holiday season is a time of festive decorations, family time, good food, and tradition! From putting stockings by the chimney, to grandma’s classic gravy recipe, tradition is a big part of the winter holidays. Other traditions that seem to pop up this time of year, may not be so merry. Stress, fatigue, and financial strain can be seasonal events that come up like clockwork, and that you would like to do without. Luckily, there are some easy solutions to help shake off the stress that comes with the holiday season! 

     

    First, it’s necessary to understand why it is important to avoid stress! Not only does it negatively impact our mood, but it also does some pretty negative things to the body that can have lasting effects. This impact strikes our mental health, physical health, and hormones, which can lead to a domino effect of changes.  

     

    Depending on if you experience occasional (acute) stress, or chronic (long-term) stress, the impact can vary. For instance, if you experience situational stress that comes briefly and then goes, you may experience some of the short term stress events listed below. 

     

    The definition of short-term stress is a stress reaction to a specific cause, that lasts anywhere from a period of minutes, to several hours (1). The experience of “short-term stress” is something that we have held onto since prehistoric times. This type of short-term stress event comes in response to an isolated stimulus or stressful trigger. Historically, this could look like a predator approaching you. Now, this could be a near-accident while driving, or an unexpected alarm going off that startles you. These stressors lead to a quick, isolated stress response, where the body goes through a series of steps: 

     

    Short-Term Stress Events 

     

    1. Amygdala Alarm: The brain’s amygdala triggers the fight or flight response: this gives our brain the signal to process the perceived threat, and assess how to handle it. 
    1. BRAINstorming: The amygdala communicates with the prefrontal cortex, which is where our logic and emotional reasoning lives. This allows our brain to establish that the initial, startling trigger is not something to panic about. Like, “the alarm I heard is a car alarm, not a fire alarm, and I am not in danger.” This communication helps us to know when to fight, flee, or neither.  
    1. Prepare for Action: As a result of this neurological response, the body will also respond. When a stressful trigger comes, the body receives a jolt in stress hormones, like cortisol. This increases heart rate, sweating, and essentially wakes up the body and makes sure it is poised for action. 
    1. Happy Ending: Finally, once the stressful event has been observed as not being a threat, everything calms down again. Your heart rate will return to normal, your blood pressure will go back down, and you might feel a bit more tired than before. This aftermath fatigue is basically a stress hangover. With the rush of stress hormones that flood the body in the moment, the new lack of those hormones can leave us feeling sluggish, tired, and ready for a nap! 

     

    Long-Term (Chronic) Stress: 

     

    The difference between short-term stress and long-term, or chronic stress is that instead of the stress response being limited to a short time, with chronic stress, the body maintains a constant baseline of these processes.  

     

    According to Yale Medicine, chronic stress is defined as a “consistent state of feeling pressured and overwhelmed for an extended period of time.” This often comes in tandem with anxiety, which is similarly a lingering series of symptoms, versus something that comes and goes quickly (2). Individuals with chronic stress may feel like they are always in a state of fight or flight, and may regularly experience increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, sweating, etc. The difference is that with chronic stress, there is often no singular trigger that sets the event in motion. Unlike with short-term stress, chronic stress is ever present, lingering, and requires intentional support to get rid of. There are substantial health risks associated with chronic stress, including: 

    Additionally, long-term stress is closely tied to reactions with hormones. As the body naturally produces a boost of hormones (like the aforementioned cortisol) in stressful events, this remains true for long-term stress as well. The danger of chronic stress regarding hormones is the potential for a hormone imbalance. When the body is in a constant state of outputting stress hormones, that becomes the body’s baseline, instead of a temporary change (like in the case of acute/short-term stress). This can cause a slew of issues, including weight gain, high blood pressure, thyroid issues and higher risks for infection, fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety and gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhea and constipation (4). These risks are especially present for women versus men, as hormones play a big role in a woman’s body’s ability to recover and rebuild during rest.  Mens’ recovery mainly relies on testosterone, which is consistently present and able to refresh at any time of day, whether a man is awake or asleep. For women, the hormone estrogen plays a huge part in recovery and rest on a cellular level. The difference is that for women, this recovery only takes place during periods of restful sleep. Therefore, if a woman experiences chronic stress that impacts her ability to sleep well, her hormones and healing can be disrupted for as long as the chronic stress continues!  

    Some of the apparent side effects that women experience with chronic stress, include: 

    • Increase in appetite and weight gain: Have you ever noticed that when you’re stressed, you opt for high-calorie foods? It turns out, this is likely due to your biology, and not an issue of self control. This is a real bummer, isn’t it, ladies? Not only might you deal with chronic stress, but you also lose quality sleep, and then eat more calories to make up for it, all because of hormones. It hardly seems fair, but this is one way that a woman's body tries to regain a state of calm and balance. Thinking evolutionarily, a person would never eat in a time of stress, so it makes sense that in modern days, the body craves high-calorie, comforting foods to reduce chronic stress. Overindulging in Christmas cookies or mashed potatoes? Consider it a gift to your body and its attempt to calm down. 

    Dr. Jane Oh (an OBGYN in Illinois) sheds some light on the ties between these foods and hormone production, explaining that cholesterol is a primary building block for hormone production. She says that we have to eat natural sources of cholesterol to make these hormones. Examples would be egg yolks, grass-fed butter or ghee, and fatty fish like wild salmon. She also emphasizes the importance of regulating certain sources of stress in our lives like caffeine, alcohol, sugar, and flour. Particularly, if we overindulge in these “stressful” foods, it can mess up the pathways that hormones travel within the body (5). 

    All of this being said, if you find that one of your responses to stress this holiday season is to reach for certain foods, caffeine, or alcohol, you are A) not alone, and B) are probably just listening to the cues from your body! And this is where our solutions come in!  

    The good news is that chronic stress is not a sentence to perpetual, poor health. You are not doomed to use uncontrollable coping skills every holiday season! There are several things you can do to shake away the seasonal stress, and focus on healthy, intentional, and productive stress management!  

    Bah, Humbug to Stress!  

    One of the most important factors for stress management and reduction lies within nutrition. We have several helpful guides to basic nutrition 101, that you can find here or here. Beyond the basics of nutrition, it is important to supplement in the areas that may be lacking. For instance, a majority of the population in the US and elsewhere, are deficient in crucial vitamins like vitamin D, magnesium, and electrolytes. All of these play a pivotal role in our overall health, and especially in our stress management.  

    Vitamin D: Known and revered as the “sunshine pill,” vitamin D is a powerhouse of nutritional joy! This nutrient helps with the health of our skin, hair, nails, and even with combating mental health ailments like depression, anxiety, and (you guessed it!) stress.  

    Magnesium: Magnesium, in all of its various forms, is a highly beneficial nutrient that helps us sleep our best, remain calm, and also ensures bone health.  

    Electrolytes: Electrolytes are the train to hydration station. They make sure that we are able to make the most of the water we drink, and partner with all of the good stuff in the body, to boost energy, mood, and heart health. Electrolytes are the essential hydration nutrient to keep everything else in working order! 

    Stress at the Source 

    If you fall into the chronic stress category, or even only acute stress during the holiday season, you may want to consider ways to tackle it at the source. Some excellent tools for working on this include therapy, exercise/movement, and journaling. 

    Therapy is for Everyone!  

    There are great resources that can provide therapy at discounted rates, with or without insurance. Some examples are: 

    Sometimes, “talking it out” is a great way to externally process inner stressors, and learn about where our stress comes from. Once you know its source, you will be better equipped to shoo it away. (Even Scrooge found value in talking out his past woes with the spirits who came to visit him!) 

    Movement/Exercise: Literally Shake it Off! 

    If your stress makes you feel like jumping out of your skin, maybe you should do just that! Jump around! Get outside, to the gym, or even just to your living room and jump, dance, run, push-up, stretch,  or physically shake off that stress. Even a few minutes of movement can help boost circulation, create a flow of happy hormones, and make us feel much happier and more energized. (Not to mention, the perks of vitamin D from the sunshine if you opt to go outside). 

    Write it Out 

    When you don’t feel like talking it out or physically moving it out, another great option to cope with stress is to write it out! Journaling has many proven benefits to mental health, and can be a soothing and private way to get stress out of your head, and onto paper. From there, you can gain some mental peace, and also keep track of stressors as they come. If you are able to notice a pattern, then that is helpful research in your de-stressing journey! For tips on journaling types, tricks, and tactics, check out this post.  

    From Seasonal Stress, to Season’s Greetings 

    This holiday season, don’t let stress ruin your festive mood. Shake that stress off, and don’t let it become the Scrooge of your holiday season. Prioritize your health and happiness on your seasonal to-do list, and use the resources that are available to help you. Align your nutrition, talk to someone, shake it off, or write it out, and embrace the cheer of the holiday season.   

    We at Health by Principle hope that you and yours have healthy and happy holidays!  

     

    Sources

    1. Dhabhar, F. S. (2018). The short-term stress response – Mother nature’s mechanism for enhancing protection and performance under conditions of threat, challenge, and opportunity. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 49, 175–192. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yfrne.2018.03.004 
    2. Yale Medicine. (2022). Chronic stress. Retrieved from Yale Medicine website: https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/stress-disorder#:~:text=%E2%80%A2A%20consistent%20sense%20of 
    3. MedlinePlus. (2016). Stress and your health. Retrieved from Medlineplus website: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/003211.htm
    4. Can Stress Upset My Hormones? (n.d.). Retrieved from www.winniepalmerhospital.com website: https://www.winniepalmerhospital.com/content-hub/can-stress-upset-my-hormones
    5. How Stress Can Cause a Hormonal Imbalance. (2019, March 21). Retrieved from Healthline website: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/hormone-imbalances-and-how-to-treat-them#But-does-diet-really-impact-hormonal-imbalance?

       

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