By Dr. Blake Gurfein, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer, Tivic Health Systems
For many people, the holidays can be a season of joy as well as stress and anxiety. Coping with a multitude of holiday demands and expectations can feel overwhelming. Whether you are coping with seasonal depression, family anxiety, or even the in-laws; there is no getting around the simple fact that the most “wonderful” time of the year should come with a warning label even on a normal year. Needless to say, the additional stress of managing COVID-19 risk can bring yet more anxiety to group and family gatherings this year.
Stress can have a significant impact on the brain as well as the immune system. Your immune system is less capable of responding to challenges when dealing with chronic stress, and that same stress can harm brain cells and even reduce overall brain volume. Thankfully, there are ways to combat the ramifications of stress and anxiety. Here are some tips to minimize holiday stress and stay healthy throughout the season:
1. Take care of yourself.
Keep up healthy habits on a consistent basis by prioritizing movement and exercise, getting at least seven hours of sleep each night, and eating plenty of fruit and/or vegetables among your holiday indulgences.
2. Enjoy Responsibly.
Over-consumption of alcohol over the holidays is common and the cause of dehydration and hangovers. As a friendly reminder, the CDC recommends not exceeding one drink per day (seven per week) for women and two drinks per day (fourteen drinks per week) for men. Drinking can give you more than just a hangover – side effects include disrupted sleep habits, changes in mood, increased anxiety, and more. If your goal is to reduce stress and anxiety, consider drinking a little less this holiday season.
3. Manage Risks.
Coping with stress gets easier when you create a plan to mitigate risk and avoid potential triggers for anxiety on holiday. Stay aware of local COVID-19 conditions in your area (hospitalizations, vaccination rates). Avoid crowds and high-risk gatherings where vaccination status of others is unknown. Use rapid home tests as extra precaution.
4. Set Reasonable Expectations.
Give yourself permission to forgo “must” and “should” traps and accept imperfections especially when holiday plans may not go exactly as planned. If you can hold firm to your personal boundaries to manage stress, enjoying the holidays will become much easier.
5. Strengthen Social Connections.
Strong, supportive relationships can help us get through challenges. Approach the holidays as a time to reconnect with friends and family. Sharing what is going on in your life and accepting support from those who care about us can also alleviate stress and improve mental health.
Offer to help at a local charity. Helping others is a good way to lift your spirits and make new friendships. It can also help to put your own struggles in perspective. If volunteering isn’t possible, try a random act of kindness like buying a small gift for someone who wouldn’t expect one. If you prefer to provide an act of service, reach out to people you are thankful to know and let them know you appreciate them – the gift of a compliment can go a long way to others, and you never know where someone’s head is at – they could need your gratitude more than anything.
7. Embody Patience.
The holidays can bring long lines, bad drivers, and other frustrations. An easy way to cut through this is to keep reminding yourself that other people are fighting battles that you don’t know about. In the long run, practicing patience is proven to reduce stress levels, and is among the best relaxation techniques available during the holiday season.
8. Try Meditating.
Meditation is a powerful practice that has been shown to be very effective at reducing stress and anxiety. As little as five or ten minutes of meditation can be enough to quiet your mind and experience stillness. Guided practices are a great way to get some experience meditating. Try a free 10 minute meditation provided by Headspace. Pro tip: it’s also a great excuse to get a few minutes away from visiting family.
Holiday Stress Resource Center (American Psychological Association)
Navigating the Holidays Safely (Mayo Clinic)
We’re Having a Holiday Gathering. Are We Nuts? (New York Times Pandemic Holiday Quiz