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Stress During the Holidays

The holiday season brings with it special joy and unique stress. Several studies list finances as the leading source of anxiety, and the societal pressure to pursue and buy the perfect gift only adds to the problem. Calanders are packed with travel and gatherings. The end of the year is a challenge for many workers, including those employed in retail, education, the food industry, and medicine. And for those grieving the loss of a loved one, this can be a very lonely time.

Throughout the year, many of us deal with difficult relationships, challenging careers, and health concerns. Even for people normally capable of managing a high stress load, the holidays can present additional difficulties.

Stress can be defined as a stimulus that creates an imbalance in the body. Stress can be positive or negative, short-term or chronic. We depend on two parts of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) to respond to stress. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) functions like a gas pedal, releasing a cascade of hormones to initiate the fight-flight-freeze response. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) serves as a brake pedal, returning the body to a pre-stress level with a rest-digest-reproduce response.

With chronic stress, the body doesn’t have an opportunity to return to normal. Resources are redirected to the sympathetic nervous system. As a result, functions regarding mental health, sleep, digestion, and reproduction are no longer a priority.

Stress cannot be eliminated. However, it can be reduced and managed, and both approaches should be considered.

Reduce stress by evaluating each activity. There are many obligations during the holidays. Reflect on what contributes to your flourishing and what is a burden. The goal is not to abandon every holiday party, shopping trip, homemade dish, or seasonal chore. Rather, focus on the most important things and consider if they are enough.

“I gave up Instagram for Advent. At first it was really hard; I kept picking up my phone and trying to find something to do. But now, I realize I've felt a lot more peace during Advent to just listen to what God is trying to tell me, instead of listening to what other people are doing or thinking. And it's helped this season feel a lot more slow and quiet rather than the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations.”
“Working full time and attending school in the evenings has been very stressful. Cooking, baking, and hosting are additional tasks, and I decided to delegate this year. Another family member is hosting Christmas, and I have found a local bakery with a wonderful selection of baked desserts.”

Manage stress by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. After reducing activities that trigger the SNS, it’s time to think about activities that promote the PNS.

We are very good at scheduling tasks in our weekly calendars, but it’s often difficult to make time for rest and restoration. The current culture encourages being busy and confuses rest with laziness. Human beings are not machines. The first step in managing stress is to set aside time for recovery. The ideal time of day varies from person to person, and can include the early morning, the late afternoon after work, or just before bed.

There are many articles and texts that list activities that engage the PNS. Think about what feels restorative to you. Walking and gentle stretching are the two most common physical activities. Meditation, breathing exercises, quiet music, reading, and warm baths help relax the mind.

“I love to sit by the lit tree with the fire going to start my day. Listen to Hallow or something meditative.”
“Breathing in some cool winter fresh air and moving my body always helps me to feel more centered during this busy time of year! Also baking.”
“For me, sitting by the fire under a cozy blanket and knitting or reading a good book, preferably with a scented candle lit! I also find baking Christmas treats very relaxing, as well as watching classic Christmas movies and listening to traditional Christmas music. Finally, sitting down at the piano and playing, especially traditional and classical music, is a favorite way of de-stressing for me.”
“I love going outside for a walk, I listen to some interesting podcast, reading a good book in my couch, taking a hot shower before going to bed.”
“I spend fifteen minutes stretching while listening to medication music with the light off with just a candle burning. I’ll do this right before bed. SO relaxing and really calms my mind and body.”

Expressing gratitude is another restorative activity. I’m grateful for the examples offered by members of RHM as well as their support during this season and beyond.

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