The end of the year brings a bevy of holiday traditions; cooking, decorating, gift exchanges and family gatherings can create cherished memories. But for many Americans, the holidays also bring a not-so-joyous tradition: stress.
Stress is more than just an inevitable consequence of crowded stores, flight delays and too much family time. It’s the body’s natural response to feeling threatened, and it can have a host of negative health impacts.
In a recent survey, 19 percent of respondents reported that they get stressed out just thinking about holiday shopping.
Kristin Hoffner, principal lecturer in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University, explains how stress impacts our health and what we can do to maintain our cool during the holiday season.
Question: What exactly is happening to our bodies when we’re stressed?
Answer: When we are stressed, our body launches into a state of “fight or flight” — or we experience symptoms of our physiological stress response. We start breathing hard, our heart starts to pound, our blood pressure goes up, digestion slows, and blood flow is diverted to major muscle groups and vital organs. This is a beneficial adaptation and the changes that our body experiences are literally preparing us to fight or flee the “danger” that is in front of us.
In modern times, however, a lot of our danger (or threat) is perceived, and therefore fight or flight is less of a benefit and more of a hindrance, as consistent stress and anxiety puts us in a physiological state that is taxing on our body. If we are in a prolonged state of constant stress, our nervous system is working overtime and this can have a negative impact on our immune system and overall health.
Q: What are the health consequences of being stressed?
A: When our body has to physiologically maintain fight or flight, we deplete our resources, leaving us susceptible to illness. We can only “resist” stress for so long, until we hit a state of exhaustion. At this point, the body forces you to rest.
Consider this example: As an undergraduate student, you may live in a state of “resistance” — resisting the effects of stress resulting from balancing the demands of working, studying, doing research, social events, volunteering, club involvement, internships and final exams. As the semester ends and you finally see a light at the end of the tunnel — all of a sudden you are sick and in bed for a week of your winter break. Many students can relate to this and may have had this experience themselves. We cannot thrive with prolonged stress.
Health consequences are not only direct effects of heightened autonomic arousal, but also result from indirect effects — manifested through behaviors. For many people, stress impacts eating, sleep, exercise, alcohol and drug use, and other risky behaviors. It is important to recognize when you are experiencing stress, so you can make conscious efforts to maintain healthy behaviors and limit other unhealthy behaviors. Ironically, a lot of the healthy behaviors that we ignore (such as exercise) often help us to manage our stress!
Q: Is stress inevitable, or are there things we can do (or not do) to eliminate or mitigate it?
A: Experiencing stressful or uncomfortable situations is inevitable — but the way we experience it differs.
Stress is a very individual experience based on perception. We can view each situation that we face as a threat or a challenge. Those with a threat appraisal often experience higher levels of stress, while those who take on more of a challenge perspective see each situation as something that they have prepared for or a new opportunity for growth.
While this may be easier said than done, it is something that we can practice over time. We can work to change our own self-talk patterns to find the good in each situation and can attempt to manage our emotions by understanding that our emotional response to every situation is a choice. Although life can throw a lot at us (especially during the holidays), we can choose our reaction.
We can also employ other tangible strategies to manage stress through the holidays, such as setting small, achievable goals. Do not take on too much!
To regulate both cognitive and physiological symptoms of stress, deep, focused breathing is a great tool. It helps to calm the mind while also slowing the heart rate and breathing rate. It can also be done at any time — while shopping, wrapping gifts, cooking or spending time with family.
Ultimately, our stress response is up to us — we can reframe each situation and practice simple techniques to help us handle the demands of the holidays.