For many of us, “the most wonderful time of the year” is anything but. If we let the holiday season get the better of us, we can find ourselves overeating, overspending, and over-extending from now through New Year’s Eve.
Holiday stress has real health implications: The American Heart Association warns that the increased stress we feel this time of year can lead to significant coronary events. The American Psychiatric Association urges people to make a plan for the depression and anxiety this time of year brings. And internal medicine doctors like me caution patients to wash their hands and get plenty of sleep, as this is cold and flu season.
Despite the dangers, the holidays really can be filled with more mistletoe than misery. To have happy – and healthy – holidays:
1. Plan ahead. Set aside some days for shopping, baking, traveling, etc. The intention here is to avoid a big build-up of things that have to be done at the last minute. Having achievable goals every day helps us conquer our to-do lists and prevents stress and anxiety from kicking in.
2. Learn to say, “No.” You can’t be at three places at once, so don’t try to be. Creating healthy boundaries and communicating clearly will help protect you from becoming overextended and burdened by unrealistic expectations.
3. Put on your own oxygen mask first. Just like the flight attendants always tell you, you can’t take care of others or others’ needs if you don’t first take care of yourself. This means maintaining your healthy habits: exercise, sleep, hydration, stretching, healthy and – in particular – eating. The salt- fat- and sugar-laden food that surrounds us now is tempting, but it’s important to be selective. Being nourished by the food you eat will keep you healthy and feeling good.
4. Take a breather. Make time for yourself, even if it’s just 15 minutes alone without distractions. Breathe, stretch, meditate. Whatever it is that recharges you, take time out every day to do it. No, folding laundry doesn’t count. Neither does driving (you should be paying attention to the road). “Me time” is about slowing down your mind and connecting with your inner self.
5. Stick to your budget. You can’t compete with Santa Claus; he’s got a whole workshop and virtually no overhead. Financial stress causes your body to release norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that causes headaches, insomnia and stomach issues and compromises your mental health and immune system. Add those symptoms to the cost of whatever you were contemplated buying, and you’ll see it’s just not worth it.
6. Laugh. Keeping your sense of humor will help you approach difficult, stressful situations with perspective and levity. This can go a long way to diffusing tensions and reducing the physically harmful effects of stress. A five-year study out of Norway confirmed that having a good sense of humor has physical health benefits. Life can be difficult, holidays can be stressful, and other people can be infuriating. But if we remember to focus on the things that matter – and not take too seriously the things that don’t – we can keep our selves calm, joyful and healthy.
Sevitlana Safaei is an internal medicine physician, Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, Newport Beach, CA.
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