Minimizing stress and maximizing health can make the holiday season more jolly

By Michael Precker, American Heart Association News

annamoskvina/iStock via Getty Images
(annamoskvina/iStock via Getty Images)

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Between economic struggles, political division and life's everyday pressures, the year has already been stressful enough for many people.

And now, here come the holidays: food and beverage temptations, crowded airports and traffic jams, and family gatherings, which can be great but maybe not always.

"The holidays can be a source of joy and wonder," said Dr. Alan Koenigsberg, a psychiatrist in private practice and a volunteer clinical professor of psychiatry at the UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. "But they can also be a source of pain and stress."

Before the holiday season, said Dr. Christopher Bauchman, a clinical psychologist in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, "I like to give people homework exercises, things that they can practice. So if something does pop up, you feel like you're more prepared."

The implications of stress aren't just psychological. Researchers have documented the links between chronic stress and increased incidence of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and other risk factors for cardiovascular disease. A 2021 study in Hypertension found people with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol had an increased risk of having a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular event.

Even short-term stress can have health consequences. Watching a stressful World Cup soccer match more than doubled the risk of a cardiac emergency, according to a German study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2008.

"It's hard to avoid stress," Koenigsberg said. "But minimizing stress is important for overall health as well as cardiovascular health."

That can be harder during the holidays for several reasons, he said.

"Just traveling is stressful," Koenigsberg said. "Then there's the preparation, all the cooking and cleaning. Then there's family dynamics. Some families get along wonderfully, and it's a tremendous source of pleasure. For other families, it can be tremendously stressful to get together with people you don't see that often and everybody's supposed to be happy."

Aside from the external factors, he said, "There are people who have lost loved ones or people who have been through abusive situations, and the holidays themselves can be difficult."

Bauchman recommends the same mindfulness techniques he advocates throughout the year, from deep breathing and exercise to gratitude journals and challenging internal negative thoughts.

"The three most important things we can control in our everyday life are sleep, diet and exercise," he said. "So, continue to incorporate those healthy factors, whether hosting family or traveling. Try to maintain as normal a routine as you can while we're going through the holidays."

Bauchman and Koenigsberg offered other tips to manage stress over the holidays:

Feast wisely. "During the holidays, we'll eat a little more and that's OK," Koenigsberg said. "This is not the time to stress yourself and try to lose weight. Just eat healthy, have reasonable portions and enjoy yourself."

Manage your gift-giving. Coming from a large family, Bauchman said, the gift lists would be long and expensive. "So, we do a Secret Santa," dividing up the burden, he said. "And we set a cap on how much to spend."

Socialize. "If you don't have family and friends to be with, you've got to be social," Koenigsberg said. "One of the concerns during the holidays is people who are isolated. Please go out and be with people. Perhaps do something meaningful, like volunteering."

Get outside. "Spend time in nature," Bauchman advised. "The more time you spend in a tranquil place, the lower your depression, the lower your stress, and the better your quality of life is. You're getting healthy oxygen into your system."

Koenigsberg concurred. "Our body has over 600 muscles," he said. "They're meant to move, the more the better."

Have reasonable expectations. "If you assume everything's going to go flawlessly, you're setting yourself up for major disappointment," Koenigsberg said. "Sometimes the holidays may not work out perfectly or be a completely pleasant time. You go through it and you move on."

Just say no. "You have to ask yourself, 'What's my limit to what I can manage?'" Bauchman said. "You have to be honest with yourself and not try to do everything."

You know this one's coming. It's become a standard recommendation for families with divergent political opinions sitting down to dinner together: Keep stress-inducing controversy off the holiday table.

"You have the entire rest of the year to get into arguments," Koenigsberg said.

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