Lifestyle

Don't let holiday stress wear you out | Gustafson

‘Tis the season to be jolly – and also stressed out. Eating right and exercising regularly are ways to relief the stress of the holidays. - Courtesy photo
‘Tis the season to be jolly – and also stressed out. Eating right and exercising regularly are ways to relief the stress of the holidays.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

It's supposed to be the "most wonderful time of the year." But for many Americans the holiday season brings considerable stress, anxiety and even depression. What should be an opportunity to slow down, take a vacation, focus on family and friends, often turns into an annually reoccurring hassle that is more of a burden than a relief.

It's no wonder that so many people have a sense of dread rather than excitement about the holidays and find themselves completely frazzled by the time it's over, says Elisabeth Scott, a stress management expert at about.com..According to a poll she conducted, 80 percent of respondents said they were more stressed during the holidays than they would like to be.

Shopping, preparing, celebrating: It all can become quite overwhelming

"All of the baking and entertaining, shopping, wrapping, relatives we don't often see (sometimes for good reason), and holiday cards can add up to a schedule packed with extra activity and responsibility. Pair that with high expectations that most of us carry for the season, as well as the debt that often lasts for months afterwards, and you have a recipe for stress," says Scott.

Stress is also one of the reasons why so many people get sick around the holidays. It's not just flu season that catches up with you, it's also that the heightened stress weakens your immune system and makes you more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria.

Studies have shown that when test participants were subjected to elevated stress levels, their bodies almost stopped producing infection-fighting antibodies and their natural defenses went down.

Stress can make you more susceptible to illnesses from colds and flu to chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, according to WebMD. Studies found that chronic stress can 'age' the immune system and potentially increase the risk of any number of serious health conditions, including cancer.

It doesn't have to be this way. "This year can be different," Scott says. "Try a combination of cutting back on activities, taking shortcuts, and adjusting your own expectations for the season. You can enjoy the holidays to the fullest without maxing out your energy, schedule and credit cards."

Most importantly, you need to take care of your health, if you want to make it through the holidays in one piece. That starts with sound eating habits, regular exercise and getting enough rest.

Stress increases your need for nutrients because stress makes it more difficult for the body to digest properly, says Cindy Heroux, a registered dietitian and author of "The Manual That Should Have Come With Your Body" (Speaking of Wellness, 2003). "The more malnourished you become, the more severely stress will impact both your body and your mind," she warns.

Eat healthy, exercise

To prevent that from happening, health experts recommend eating plenty of antioxidants from fruits and vegetables to keep so-called "free radicals" at bay. Free radicals are reactive biological compounds that can damage DNA and suppress the immune system and are associated with many diseases. It is believed that stress plays a significant role in the increasing presence of these compounds.

Exercise, of course, is a great way to find relief from stress. "Exercise can decrease stress hormones like cortisol and increase endorphins, your body's feel-good chemicals, giving your mood a natural boost. [It] can take your mind off your problems and either redirect it on the activity at hand or get you into a zen-like state," says Scott.

In addition to following a balanced diet and exercise regimen, you also must set time aside for rest and relaxation. If necessary, you have to say 'no' and cut back on preparations or activities if they overwhelm you. "You don't need to try every activity offered, go to every party thrown, or do everything the 'Martha Stewart' way in order to make your holiday special," says Scott. Don't become so busy that you no longer enjoy what is supposed to be fun and give you pleasure. Stick to what's important to you, the things you would really miss if they weren't included, and don't measure yourself by other people's expectations. After all, it should be a wonderful time for you, too.

Timi Gustafson RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun," which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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