Managing Holiday Stress
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Turkeys to cook, letters going out to Santa, family visits, in-laws, increased work demands, holiday budgeting, shopping, gift wrapping, a never-ending circuit of parties and gatherings. If it feels as if you are being pulled in a million directions during the holidays, you’re probably right! Your body responds to stress the same way during the holidays as it does at any other time of year – with fatigue, irritability, blood sugar fluctuations, hormone fluctuations, wonky sleep and digestion, and increased ability to catch the seasonal bug going around the office. With the increased demands of the season, stress management and good diet are more important than ever!

So what’s a reasonably healthy and sane person to do? Here are some strategies for getting through Holiday Season 2009 with your blood sugar, adrenal function, and sanity intact!

  1. Figure out what you can let go of. When times are busy, it often feels as if you are running from event to event, without time to catch your breath. As your days get planned, and your calendar begins to fill with events, make a list of every social activity for the week and rate it – A for “must do”, B for “would really like to do”, C for “I don’t really want to do, but feel like I should”, D for “the world wouldn’t end if I didn’t do”. If you start to feel like you need time out, consider backing out of the “D” items on your calendar. If you’ve cancelled all the “D’s”, and still need more relief, begin to look at the “C’s”, and back down from some of those. If you have to eliminate some “B’s” to make it sane, do it!
  1. Start taking care of holiday tasks early. You typically know by mid-summer who will be on your gift list for the holidays. Start thinking about presents early, especially if you make some or all of your gifts. Having more time for projects such as gift making or shopping makes them less stressful. You’re more likely to stumble on the perfect something for Aunt Sally if you are thinking about her every time you go to the mall, and if you buy as you find “the perfect gift” you will eliminate the last minute rush AND the post-holiday huge credit card bills. If you make your own gifts, start making a list of projects well in advance, and work on them gradually.
  1. Get enough sleep. The busier we get, the more likely we are to stay up later and get up earlier. There does come a point when this is counter productive. If you are not getting enough sleep, you are more fatigued. Your immune system has less fuel, so you are more likely to become sick. Your mood gets grumpy, and you start to succumb to the cravings for salt and sugar you thought you had overcome. Make sure you have an average of 7-8 hours per night dedicated to sleep.
  1. Eat right. We go to tons of parties at this time of year, and everyone is showing off their cookie baking skills. My friends refer to this time of year as “the eating season” with good reason. Many of you are on restricted diets for one reason or another, and while it is never easy to avoid gluten or dairy, or to minimize carbohydrates without protein, it is even harder when you have a steady stream of business lunches, holiday parties, and festive meals. Write your dietary goals on a sticky note, and post it on your bathroom mirror where you look at it several times per day. Make sure you eat a solid protein based breakfast whether or not you are hungry, and check out check out my article on Healthy Holiday Eating for some additional strategies for sticking with your food plan.
  1. Learn to say “no”. Do you really want to take your sister’s kids for the weekend? If so, great. If not, speak up! Does trekking to your family in Temecula for Christmas brunch followed by a jaunt to Vegas for Christmas dinner with the in-laws sound like a good time? If so, do it and have fun. If it is overwhelming to even consider, just say NO. Perhaps spend Thanksgiving with one family and Christmas with the other, or invite them all to come to your place. Or, let everyone know you’re doing things differently this year and spend the holidays simply with your partner and/or children. The world will NOT end if you do not see the entire family on Christmas Day, and Hanukkah has eight days to choose from for your family gatherings.
  1. Get the family involved in the holiday preparations. Do you typically do all the holiday shopping for your spouse AND children as well as yourself? Maybe this is the year for them to take some of that responsibility. Sit down with your family and make a list of everyone you want to give gifts to. Then, decide together which gifts will be homemade, and which will be purchased. Next, determine who is responsible for making or purchasing each gift. Have a brief family meeting each week to check in and show off your projects and purchases, to make sure it all gets done. Check each gift off as it is completed, so you don't duplicate each other’s efforts. Gift making can be a weekend family project. For example, my husband and I give our family and friends baskets of homemade chocolates, homemade jam and/or chutney, homemade soap, and handmade jewelry. We make jam and other canned products throughout the year, and make our own labels. We’ll take a Saturday in October or November to make a batch or two of soap, then slice it and package it a few weeks later. We decide who will receivechocolates by October, pick the recipes we plan to use by early November, and plan a few days of chocolate making the week before we plan to distribute the gifts. Our friends have gotten interested enough in the chocolate project that we sometimes have a dipping party and invite a few friends over to help in the dipping, decorating, and boxing. Everyone who participates gets to take home a box of candy. I make beads and jewelry throughout the year. If a piece is screaming my sister’s name, I set it aside for her and pull it out when it is time to mail the gifts.
  1. Shop online. Unless you LOVE the experience of a crowded mall with Christmas carols blaring from every speaker, avoid the rush, the crowds, the stress, and the limited store hours by shopping from home. Of course, choose websites with adequate security so you don’t need to worry about the safety of your credit card information.
  1. Exercise!!! It adds another demand on an already packed schedule, but exercise is CRITICAL to managing stress effectively. Every time you feel stressed, your adrenals are pumping cortisol into your bloodstream. Cortisol is the fight or flight hormone, which leads you to feeling jittery, anxious, amped up, wide awake, and stressed out. This response is appropriate if you are being chased by a saber-toothed tiger who wants you for dinner, as it allows you to have the extra burst of energy you need to run like the wind and escape becoming the meal of the day. When you have these bursts of cortisol and do not run for your life, the hormone stays in your blood stream and wreaks havoc on your blood sugar and mood. 30-60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise helps to moderate this stress response and get the excess cortisol out of your system. Find an exercise buddy, and take a walk, go for a run, get on your bicycle, take a kick boxing class – anything which gets you moving and is fun is fair game.
  1. Get an acupuncture treatment. Acupuncture can have a profound effect on the central nervous system, and is extremely calming for most people. If you know you will have a particularly busy week, plan ahead and schedule a stress-busting treatment to help get you through it.