Author: Sarah Clark Williams
‘Tis that season again! You know, the one where you haven’t yet tasted the dishes of Thanksgiving’s feast before the bombardment of Christmas begins. While thoughts of hot cocoa, carols and snowy days warms the heart, the endless ads and commercials pushing you to buy more, eat more and host more may also trigger thoughts of stress and anxiety. Although a time for blessings, gratitude, giving, reflection of past progress and planning of future endeavors, stress never seems to be far behind this joyful time of year.
The activities that accompany the festive season can, and often do, leave us vulnerable to needless stress, especially for women. A survey by the American Psychological Association found that more women reported an increase in stress during the holidays as they feel more inclined to fulfill the extra expectations. 1 With so much more to do like buying and wrapping gifts, decorating the house, making and hosting delicious dinners, and still finding the energy to maintain daily responsibilities, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the tasks and timeline.
Stress is a concept that often causes stress itself as we are conditioned to fear it and avoid it lest it rob us of our health and peace of mind. However, it is not something that needs to cause unease, it simply needs to be understood and then managed to the best of your abilities. A stress response can be caused by many things and it affects everyone on multiple levels: emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically.
When we are in an environment or situation where we encounter some stimuli that the mind perceives as threatening and causes anxiety, fear, anger, etc., a stress response is initiated in the body. This response involves a cascade of physiological changes that orients functioning of the body towards survival, which puts our sympathetic nervous system (aka the “fight or flight” mode) into action. Among these changes are: increased heart rate, constriction of blood vessels, increased blood pressure, the digestive system essentially turns off, stored sugars are broken down and utilized for energy and the muscles experience tension. 2 Acute stress does have benefit. For example, as we sleep our blood sugar levels decline and when levels fall below the normal and safe range, the body initiates a stress response. This releases cortisol, a hormone of our nervous system, which wakes us up, so that we know we need to eat; it also triggers a process in which our body makes sugars for energy. Without this mechanism, your blood sugar could fall low enough to be fatal and the body would not know or have the ability to stop it.
If you think about it, this really is not such a bad response to have in our physiological tool kit. However, the stress response has not evolved as lifestyles have and it cannot tell the difference between acute stress signals from a life-threatening situation versus the burdens of daily life. Experiencing constant anxiety over things such as work overload, financial struggle, traffic jams, relationship troubles, etc., can lead to chronic stress. Over time, chronic stress can cause components of the sympathetic nervous system to wear out, diminishing the capacity to overcome stressful events and increasing the body’s vulnerability to illness, dysfunction, and disease. “Emotional stress is a major contributing factor to the six leading causes of death in the United States: cancer, coronary heart disease, accidental injuries, respiratory disorders, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.” 3
There are many natural ways to treat stress, find relief and even experience long term benefits to your health and life. I encourage you to research and explore all the types of meditation and yoga, ways to be mindful, ways to limit stress and ways to value your health. I have listed a few good basic and starter coping mechanisms to try below. Enjoy!
Positive Self-talk: Maintaining a positive and tenacious mindset is one of your best defenses against trauma. The best way to keep your mind in a happy place is to monitor the discussions and debates that only you hear, you know, the ones that you have with your self. If you realize those conversations are not calming, encouraging, beneficial, etc., stop, and start talking nice.
Practice awareness: You can’t de-stress a situation if you are not aware that what you’re experiencing is a stress response. For many people, stress may be so common in their daily life that their body functioning from the fight-or-flight mode has become the norm. Anyone can train their mind to be more aware of what is going on in the moment, and may therefore make more aware decisions. One of the best methods to practice self-awareness is meditation. Another helpful method is to practice positive self-talk.
De-stress a stressful situation: With the mental surety you can get through any situation and the awareness that you are experiencing stress, you can take some steps to de-stress the moment.
- Belly breathing – take several deep breaths into your belly. You can place your hands on your stomach to feel it expand and ensure you are breathing deep enough, this is called diaphragmatic breathing. This can slow down your heart rate, stabilize blood pressure, and shift your system into the “rest-and-relax” mode, ending a stress response. 4
- Clear your mind – stop whatever you are doing in the moment and quiet your mind. This will allow you to focus, think clearly, and chose how to react to the stress. This is when I like to repeat the Wayne Dyer quote, a positive mantra can help remind you that everything will be okay and you are in control.
- Make a plan – end your deep breathing and mind clearing by coming to a conclusion on how you will proceed in the moment you are navigating through.
“There is no such thing as stress, only stressful thoughts” ~ Wayne Dyer
- Greenberg A, Berktold J. Holiday Stress. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. 2006: 1 – 22. Available at: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2006/12/holiday-stress.pdf. Dec 12, 2006. Accessed Nov 22, 2016.
- Balch P. Prescriptions for Nutritional Healing: A Practical A-to-Z Reference to Drug-Free Remedies Using Vitamins, Minerals, Herbs & Food Supplements. New York, NY: Penguin Group; 2010
- Salleh MR. Life Event, Stress and Illness. Malays J Med Sci. 2008; 15(4):9-18.
- Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response. Harvard Health Publications. Available at: http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/relaxation-techniques-breath-control-helps-quell-errant-stress-response. Published January 2015. Updated March 18, 2016. Accessed November 30,
- Butler G. Definitions of Stress. Occas Pap R Coll Gen Pract. 1993; (61):1-5.
- Pitchford P. Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books; 2002.