Whether you’re jammed up in holiday travel or just the parking lot at the mall, under end-of-year deadlines at work, or are overextended in meeting social expectations — the holidays can add a lot of stress to our already busy normal daily life. You may be pulled in many different directions and sometimes circumstances are out of your control. In addition to this kind of overwhelm, for some people, the holiday season can magnify loneliness or loss.

However, it’s important to remember that not all stress is bad.

For example, excitement or exercise are positive forms, called Eustress. Helpful stress peaks and subsides quickly, leaving one stronger or more resilient than before. Harmful stress, characterized as distress, generally lingers in the background and builds up over time.

The total stress load from all sources is called Allostatic Load. Modern living often has us stuck in high gear for too long, and the additional expectations of the holidays can push things right over the edge. Other internal and external sources of stress specific to December include reduced daylight hours, increased indoor time, and decreased nutritional consistency.

The effects of chronic stress can include decreased behavioral flexibility (a short attitude), poor sleep, physical exhaustion, anxiety & depression, as well as a down-regulated immune system making you more susceptible to any winter illness going around.

Resilience is the capacity to prepare for, recover from, and adapt to stress, and even the ability to neutralize ongoing wear and tear that can weaken our immune system.

So, maybe your waistband is already a bit snug and your attitude is starting to fray…

holiday stress

I’m here to share a few strategies you can implement to help you stay balanced through the rest of this.

1. Stay hydrated.

Cold weather is naturally drier, indoors and outside. Your brain loses it’s highest emotional regulatory functions with even mild dehydration. Staying hydrated is especially important to keep in mind when you are enjoying alcohol, and sparkling mineral water fits this bill perfectly.

2. Some stress is “good” in that it helps us be better and stronger.

Use that good stress to develop resilience. One easy way is to get some light exercise, which uses up those “fight/flight” stress hormones. Even a progressive muscle tightening and relaxing intervention or sprinting in place can help you turn the corner from exploding under the pressure.

Recently, exciting research has shown that sauna stimulates this kind of stress inoculation too. Adaptation to short exposures to high heat can help prevent muscle atrophy from disuse, improves insulin sensitivity,  stimulate the growth of new brain cells and increase focus and attention, and is associated with longevity. The best part is that the sauna is so relaxing — a warm quiet moment to yourself in the middle of the cold and demanding winter.

3. Eat  S L O W L Y.

I know you want to enjoy all the treats and feasts, just do it as slowly as possible. This mindfulness will bring you more enjoyment and appreciation for the festive fare, the opposite of feeling deprived. Stress from guilt about eating is worse for you than whatever you ate.

Stress from guilt about eating is worse for you than whatever you ate. - @darbyhlx Click To Tweet

However, if you know you are going into an eating situation where you would like to “balance it out,” do a light strength workout an hour or two *beforehand* so the energy will more easily be used in the muscles rather than stored.

4. Breathe S L O W E R.

It only takes one minute to breathe deeply and exhale as slowly as possible. This turns on your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS,  the“rest/digest” response) which quells the stress response and reenables (upregulates) your immune system.

The Vagus nerve is the primary connection of the PNS, sending information from the body to the brain. You can stimulate your vagus nerve in several different ways to activate the PNS, which can disrupt a stress reaction or tip the balance toward recovery from chronic stress.

holiday stress

One way to stimulate your vagus nerve is by smiling. The muscles that change the shape of your face also change the position of a tiny bone in your inner ear, information which the vagus sends to the brain and is interpreted as “I’m safe and among friends”.

Energizing the vagus nerve at the larynx (vocal folds) can be induced by singing, which also promotes deeper more controlled breathing. Both of these activities also work to reduce feelings of social isolation, fostering community and friendships and are especially available during the season of cheer.

5. Get as much sunlight as possible.

Be outdoors each day, in green space if possible. To help support your circadian rhythm during these dark months, consider getting bright light exposure in the morning, and avoiding blue light from devices in the evening. You may also consider adding Vitamin D3 to your winter supplement lineup.

6. Avoid chemical fragrances when possible.

Commercial grade scented candles and plug-in room freshener fragrances include hormone-disrupting molecules. This extends to many scented skin and hair care products. These molecules add to your total stress load and are almost entirely avoidable. Instead, enjoy natural scents to boost your mood. Real foods or essential plant oils are entirely safe for this. Smelling citrus has been shown to increase endorphin levels. The orange bergamot in Earl Grey Tea is also an emotionally soothing aroma, and a decent swap for (another) jitter inducing coffee.

If you’d like to continue the conversation about how these quick tips can boost your health and happiness, I will be hosting a thread in the Wright Wellness Center Facebook Group associated with this post. And, if you’re thinking of making a change in your nutrition habits or fitness routine, get your free jump start guide “Nutrition and Fitness for Busy Professionals.”

About the Author

Heather Lynn Darby is a Precision Nutrition certified coach and NASM certified personal trainer. Her mission is to help desk workers disrupt the cycle of chronic stress and recover from sitting through food, mood, and movement. As a personal coach, she helps people learn how to listen to their body, to eat intuitively and reset the nervous system. She specializes in: Habit-based Nutrition, Rest-based Fitness, Postural Ergonomics, Stress Resilience through Body-Mind Interventions, & Behavioral Change Psychology. You can connect with Heather on her website or in her free Facebook group: xlnt Vitality Experiment. She’s also on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!