The holidays bring family and friends together, and there is much to do. We have events to attend, cookies to bake, presents to shop for and wrap, and houses to decorate. With many things clamoring for our attention, it’s easy to see how extra stress creeps into our day. We know there are many stressors in our lives, but did you know there is more than one type of stress? And not all of it is negative?
Some stress, known as eustress, is good for us. Eustress motivates us and drives us to work toward goals. It creates feelings of happiness, accomplishment, and excitement. For example, we feel eustress as we prepare for an event that we are looking forward to.
The opposite of eustress is distress. Around the holidays we may feel distress because of financial strain, pressure to buy gifts, host events, and participate in various activities.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, can further exacerbate increased distress. Both have similar feelings and effects on the body such as sadness, lack of energy, loss of interest in usual activities, oversleeping, and weight gain.
Let’s look at five ways to help manage the stress of the holidays and maintain a healthy mind and body. While all five are important every day of the year, they are especially important when our stress levels rise.
Higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that makes us feel awake and alert, raise the heart rate and prepare the body for action. Cortisol is naturally higher at the beginning of the day but it should taper down as the day progresses. When we exercise regularly, our bodies become better able to keep stress hormones like cortisol at healthy levels and in tune with our natural rhythms. At the same time, regular exercise releases endorphins and balances serotonin and dopamine—our natural mood enhancers and feel-good brain chemicals. When these are released, we feel more stable and positive, even after we finish our workout. An easy way to add exercise to your day is to find an activity or type of movement you enjoy doing and make time for it. If you’re new to exercising, don’t forget to check with your doctor to rule out any health complications.
Sunshine in the Morning
Exposure to sunlight through your eyes in the morning is a great way to help you wake up and feel alert throughout the day. Sunlight exposure through the eye triggers the release of cortisol and serotonin, those feel-good brain chemicals. Even though it’s important to keep cortisol at healthy levels, having it elevated in the morning regulates the body’s circadian rhythm to release melatonin in the evening. Melatonin is another hormone that tells the body it’s time to sleep. So, even if it’s cloudy or overcast, take a brisk morning walk or simply enjoy your coffee by a sunlit window; you’re still getting the stimulating blue light from sunshine.
Sleep is a foundational aspect of overall well-being. Quality sleep significantly influences our mental and physical health. When we get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep, our bodies can rest, recover, and restore. Cognitive functions, such as attention, memory, and decision-making, work at a higher capacity with sufficient sleep. We’re better able to be present with our loved ones, make lasting memories, and not get bogged down with all the things to be done. On the flip side, lack of sleep is linked to mood disorders, including depression. To increase quality sleep, begin by practicing healthy sleep hygiene. A few healthy hygiene habits include creating a quiet, cool and dark room, turning off all electronics at least 30 minutes before bedtime, and sticking to a consistent sleep schedule.
When we eat better, we feel better. There is a profound connection between the foods we eat and our overall well-being. Our food choices have a direct impact on how our bodies function. Everything from energy levels to problem-solving and emotional stability is affected. When we prioritize nutrient-dense foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, we provide our bodies with all the tools they need to perform at their best.
We are social beings called to connection. Building and nurturing strong social connections and relationships allows us to share our experiences and feelings. We find emotional support and a sense of belonging. Our body sheds stress just by interacting with friends and loved ones.
Our bodies take a hit when dealing with eustress (positive stress) or distress (negative stress). We will feel overloaded if we don’t allow ourselves to return to a relaxed state. Try to improve in one of these five areas this month and notice the changes it brings.