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Holidays are fun, but they can also be stressful. You may be dealing with visiting relatives, end-of-year work deadlines, meal planning, needy family members, awful traffic, and what seems like an endless shopping list.

The good news is that some stress is good for you, because it gives you purpose, challenge, and a sense of achievement. For instance, you may feel great after serving a fantastic holiday dinner, even though it took you hours to prepare.

Unfortunately, a stressed soul may also lead to poor eating, insomnia, and weight gain—which just makes you more stressed. High levels of uncontrolled stress are not just psychologically uncomfortable. They also cause many major health problems including a 500% greater risk for heart attack, stroke, decreased bone density and muscle mass, reduced skin healing and growth, impaired immune function (which can lead to more frequent infections and even cancer), elevated blood sugar levels, increased belly fat, memory loss, and even cause your hippocampus (memory center) in the brain to shrink. The primary mechanism behind all these health problems associated with stress is an increase in cortisol levels. A sudden surge in cortisol levels causes a long list of problems.

Your goal here will be to reverse this stress hormone spiral downwards. One of the hormones that helps reduce stress is oxytocin. You can think of it as the “cuddling” hormone, as it enhances that warm feeling mothers experience when they are nursing their infants, and lovers feel when they are caressing one another. Another group of brain chemicals that modulate stress are endorphins, which are released when you exercise. Both of these neurochemicals will ease your transition toward a greater sense of calm.

As you reduce your stress and achieve hormonal balance, you’ll sleep better, eat more wisely, work out more, and you’ll feel better all the way around. With time, your cortisol, DHEA, and adrenaline levels will stabilize, and you’ll feel calmer. As your stress management improves, it will become easier for you to sleep, maintain a healthy diet, and to work out regularly.

So what are steps you can take to proactively keep your stress well managed, before it ruins your mood and impacts your health? Let’s focus on the following stress reducing activities:

Add Exercise to Burn Off Tension

The first step towards managing your stress is to get a decent work out each day. A good work out rejuvenates you and helps to produce endorphins, which make you calm. Aim to work out at least five days per week over the holidays.

Get a Good Night’s Sleep

People need a fresh start each day, but for many, a good night’s sleep is fleeting. Here are some of my favorite hints to get a good night sleep:

  • Aim to go to bed and rise on a schedule that deviates by no more than 1 hour daily (2 hours max), even over the holidays. Having an irregular bedtime is like being jet lagged all the time.
  • Use your bed for sleep, rest, and/or romance, but not for office work, video games, iPads, or watching TV. Reading or working a crossword puzzle for 15 to 30 minutes before sleep while lying in bed is okay.
  • When you turn out the lights to sleep, be sure to keep the bedroom dark and quiet. The darker the better. Wear ear plugs and sleep masks if necessary.
  • Avoid bringing pets or children into your bed at night as they will wake you up.
  • Exercise for 30-60 minutes daily, but not within two hours of going to bed.
  • Avoid white or blue light two hours before sleep. Change the computer, iPad, or tablet screen to a red background, or wear orange-red tinted glasses for two hours before bedtime. Switch your bedside reading lamp to red light bulbs. Hey, red lights are good for romance and are also festive over the holidays.

Don’t Overuse Stimulants and Alcohol

If you have trouble sleeping, don’t consume more than 2 servings of caffeine during the day, and not more than 2 servings of alcohol in the evening. Extra caffeine and alcohol disrupts a good night’s sleep.

Schedule Some Peace and Calm Every Day

Many people eat well and exercise, yet they don’t schedule any time in their day for peace and calm. If you don’t have a daily relaxation routine–10 to 20 minutes of soul calming activity–in place to manage the stress in your life, it probably won’t happen on its own. Be formal about it! Schedule some time for peace and calm. Here are some examples:

  • Make an appointment for a massage once or twice over the holidays. Massages help release oxytocin and oxytocin makes you calm and relaxed.
  • Sign up for a yoga class. If hot or athletic yoga programs are too strenuous for you, opt for an “easy” or relaxation yoga class. Some are even given by candlelight in the evening.
  • Enjoy romance and sex at least 2-3 times per week. Having sex increases oxytocin production and lowers cortisol secretion.

For your health and sanity, I highly encourage you to schedule something fun at least a few times every week!

Plan some activities that are fun for you, your family, and your close friends. Go dancing, go out to dinner, enjoy a performance—whatever is fun for you. When it comes to experiencing joy, don’t forget the importance of attitude. Whether or not we seize the opportunity, the truth is even if we can’t control the situation we’re in, we do have control over how we deal with it. We can be optimistic or pessimistic. We can smile or scowl. We also have choices about our companions. When you are stressed, it’s helpful to look for happy people who bring cheer and to limit time with those who are irritable or glum themselves, to the extent that it is realistic during the holiday season.

I wish you the best of health, especially over the holidays!

Steven Masley, MD, FAHA, FACN, FAAFP, CNS

PS If you want to see me talk about tips for stress during the holidays, watch it here.

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