December brings festivities, family fun, cherished holiday traditions… and stress! How much stress do the holidays entail? Well, according to a Healthline survey, the combination of joy and pressure that makes up the month of December means that more than 60% of us rate the holiday season as “somewhat” to “very stressful”.
What Causes Holiday Stress?
There are many factors that account for stress around the holidays:
- You have to navigate tricky family politics or familial dysfunction.
- Your busy schedule gets in the way of regular exercise and the stress relief that it provides.
- The frustrations of trying to get around in inclement winter weather.
- Endless appetizers and indulgent dinners out sabotage your diet or make you feel bloated and uncomfortable.
- The financial stress that the extra cash outflow, synonymous with the spending season, entails. One study found that Canadians spend about $1,500 extra in the month of December, and Americans about $1000. That extra expense definitely impacts your budget! For many people, that financial hit just adds insult to injury.
Given all of the above, the real question is how does anyone end up NOT feeling stressed out by the holidays? It’s not surprising that many of us get through December feeling as though we need a holiday from our holidays.
How Stress affects Your Digestion
Have you ever noticed that the gut-brain connection becomes especially evident in December? It makes sense. There is extra stress, and of course, there’s also extra food. To further complicate matters, it’s often the kind of food that wreaks havoc with your gut and your microbiome.
Stress Mode or “Fight or Flight”
Every part of your digestive system gets affected. When cortisone kicks in, your esophagus spasms, and your digestive activity reduces meaning that food sits in your stomach like a brick for a long time after eating.
In stress mode, blood flow to your gut slows down as your body redirects your blood supply to your muscles so that you can fight or run. This is what happens whenever you are in the “fight or flight” mode. This shift leads to an imbalance of bacteria in your gut. The results are cramping, diarrhea, constipation, and a host of other digestive issues. The whole process isn’t exactly fun and festive!
Calm Your Digestive Tract
How can you combat the Great December Stomach Ache? Taking a few minutes to meditate or breathe deeply before your meal triggers your body’s “relaxation response”. This switches on your parasympathetic nervous system which controls your digestion. The blood flow returns to your stomach and intestines. That allows digestion to work normally. As an added bonus, this practice may also lead to more mindful eating. This time of year eating more consciously and thoughtfully is very beneficial. One study even found a correlation between meditation and increased vegetable and lower meat consumption without any prompting of participants to choose certain foods.
It’s a good idea to increase your consumption of fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, and kimchi, or even take a probiotic supplement during times of stress to help maintain your healthy gut bacteria.
Tense Muscles Mean Shallow Breathing
To further complicate this dynamic, your tense, rigid torso muscles restrict your breathing. Again this creates a vicious cycle, shallow breathing exacerbates pain and perpetuates stress. So when you’re in pain, you can’t breathe deeply, and when you can’t breathe deeply, you feel more stress and pain.
How Holiday Stress Gives You Back Pain and Makes it Worse
Anxiety, stress, and back pain often come together in a distressing trifecta. To make matters worse, they also intensify each other. How does that work? When you’re stressed, your muscles tense up. That restricts your freedom of movement and alters the normal function of your joints and spine. In fact, chronic stress and chronic pain eventually rewire the way your brain works.
It’s no wonder many people complain of back pain at this time of the year – especially when you factor in physical stressors like shoveling snow, lugging around gifts, trudging through snow, slipping on ice or putting up seasonal lights.
The Role of Posture in Pain
Paying more attention to your posture is a good first step to getting a handle on back pain. It may sound simple, but working with a chiropractor, osteopath or massage therapist on your everyday movement patterns helps you focus on tips and tricks to bring your body back into alignment. Proper alignment reduces tension, enhances your freedom of movement, relaxes your muscles and improves your breathing. All of these have a positive effect on breaking the cycle of your pain.
Also, consider indulging yourself with some pain-relief treats! After all, self-care does not need to take a break during the busy season. Invest in a restorative yoga class, visit a naturopath, chiropractor or osteopath or have a therapeutic massage or relaxing bath. Not only will you relieve some of the emotional pressure that comes with the season, but manual therapies break the vicious cycle of stress and pain.
How Stress Affects Your Sleep
Do visions of sugarplums dance in your head in December? Or would nightmares about bill payments be a more accurate description?
In addition to financial stress, many other factors impact your sleep in December. We’re often eating and drinking more, as well as staying out later. Full stomachs, disrupted sleep schedules, anxiety and alcohol all interfere with getting a good night’s sleep.
It’s still important to maintain a solid sleep hygiene routine during these busy times.
Holiday sleep tips:
- Try to stay as close to your regular schedule as possible. Yes, even on weekends and party nights.
- Create a sleep-inducing bedtime routine. That means putting your phone and other devices away a couple of hours before bedtime.
- If you are drinking alcohol, try to have it earlier in the evening so that the effects wear off before bed. Alcohol de-stabilizes your blood sugar which then disrupts your sleep.
- Keep devices out of your bedroom while you sleep. Notifications, blinking lights, and flashing screens disturb your sleep. Many people say that they need their phone alarm to wake them up, but an old-fashioned alarm clock does the job just as well without the potential for sleep disturbance.
- Make sure that your room is cool, dark, and quiet. These are essential elements of a good night’s sleep at any time of year. Fortunately, many products are available that can optimize your environment, including blackout curtains, white noise machines, and fans.
Supplements for Sleep
There are effective supplements to help you through a rough patch and get you back on track with your sleep.
Many people have good sleep experiences with melatonin, for example. An important point about melatonin is that this is a substance that is made naturally by your body every night to get you to sleep. Darkness is the cue to your brain to make melatonin. This is why getting off screens before bed and keeping your bedroom dark are important. It does, however, have side effects and it interacts with some prescription medications. So always talk to your naturopathic doctor before taking melatonin, especially if you already take antidepressant drugs or other sleep aids.
Sipping a relaxing cup of chamomile tea before bed helps some people relax and sleep better.
Valerian contains a number of compounds that promote calmness, improve the stress response and maintain adequate levels of mood-stabilizing brain chemicals. It’s been coined nature’s Valium and has been known to work well to aid in sleep issues.
Magnesium is a mineral that helps your muscles to physically relax and let go. A magnesium supplement or Epsom Salts bath is a safe and effective part of a relaxing bedtime routine.
‘Tis the Season for Self-Care and Connections
Of course, the best way to treat stress is to tackle it at the source. At this time of the year, we’re all too often the source of our own stress. Maybe we got so caught up in finding the “perfect” presents and hosting the “perfect” party that we forgot the real purpose of the holidays, which is connection. The plain truth is that a memorable holiday does not have to cost a lot of money or create a lot of stress if we stay mindful of what the holiday is really about.
The Best Present of All
In fact, at least one study has found that the best gifts are experiences, not things. And often, the key component of a memorable experience is the company you’re with. So instead of pushing yourself to buy more or do more, consider putting some time aside to just hang out with your friends and family, or attend community events. In the end, human connection is what we all want for the holidays and every day.
Here are some of the Best Experience Gifts in Toronto
- Escape Casa Loma – If you think all escape rooms are alike, you will be surprised to learn that this one is different. We have completed several escape rooms in Toronto and this one is definitely unique. For one, there are live actors who are playing out scenes in the castle guiding you through the escape room. Secondly, you are in a castle! Thirdly, because of the atmosphere and the live actors, this is a totally immersive experience.
- I-Fly – If you’ve always wanted to try out sky-diving, this is the experience for you. Our sons got this as a Christmas gift last year. Our instructor was fantastic and seeing how accomplished he is was so inspiring. Of course, now they’re wanting to try sky-diving for real.
- The CN Tower EdgeWalk – Have a fear of heights? You may want to skip this one, but maybe it would make for good exposure therapy. It’s the world’s highest, full circle hands-free walk. In your harness with your fellow Edge-Walkers, you walk around a 5-foot ledge 116 stories above the ground. You may want your valerian and magnesium for this!
The Best Free Experiences
- Winter sports. Hit the rink, grab your sled and tackle the hills, have a snowball fight, or build a snow fort. Make the most of the season, get outdoors, fresh air, exercise and bond with your family all in one!
- Get in the spirit. Get a group of friends, family or colleagues together to go caroling, volunteer at a soup kitchen or shelter, or attend a tree-lighting ceremony.
- Make a meal. Get the whole family involved in making a super special meal. Plan an appetizer, main, side dishes, and dessert. Make a shopping list and tackle it together. Planning, getting the ingredients for and creating a fabulous meal as a family makes the meal that much more special.
Looking for a little extra help to stay healthy in December and tackle 2020 on the right foot? Come into the office and we can review your self-care routine together. If you’re trying to assemble your self-care team, we have all the self-care experts in one place. Call to book an appointment at 416.481.0222 or book online at any time here.
Authored by Dr. Pamela Frank, Naturopath