More than any other time of the year, the holidays are a crucial time for testing your stress limits. Whether you’re bracing for holiday-table debate sessions or just facing a to-do list that seems to lengthen by the minute, a bit of stress relief (maybe a lot of it) could make your season merry and bright after all.
Stress management isn’t only good for your schedule — it provides plenty of physical, emotional and mental benefits, too. When you’re feeling the agitation or frustration of stress, your cortisol levels increase, according to Sara Gottfried, MD, author of “The Hormone Cure.” Those spikes can wreak havoc, she says, especially the longer you stay stressed.
“You deplete brain chemicals like serotonin that keep you feeling happy, and high cortisol also negatively affects your sleep,” she says, adding that stress can increase your risk of belly fat, fatigue and sugar cravings. That’s not exactly an ideal way to start the new year.
Fortunately, these four actions can carry you through the holiday season — and any time of year. Set these healthy habits now, and reap the benefits forever.
1. DON’T SKIMP ON SLEEP
Although it may be tempting to get less shut-eye so that you can get more done, that’s a dangerous approach, says Filomena Trindade, MD, of the Institute for Functional Medicine.
She notes that research indicates going from eight hours to six hours will cause higher stress levels within only a few weeks. According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, inadequate sleep can even put you at risk for chronic disease like hypertension and diabetes.
“If you have holiday parties to attend and tasks to accomplish, it can be hard to stay on track with your sleep schedule,” says Trindade. “But the more you can make an effort to get 7–8 hours a night, the less stressed you’ll be.”
2. SNEAK IN A WORKOUT
When holiday schedules get packed, fitness may be one of the first activities to get cut. But it’s much better to see exercise as a must-have when it comes to stress reduction.
According to a survey done by the American Psychological Association, 53% of respondents said they felt good about themselves after exercising, and 30% said they felt less stressed.
Walking seemed to be the most effective activity for lowering stress, but other research has noted that any exercise — including yoga, strength training, group fitness classes and swimming — can be equally significant. That’s because exercise has been shown to reduce fatigue, sharpen concentration, improve sleep and decrease overall levels of tension.
3. EAT HEALTHY FATS
With office holiday parties, cookie swaps, cocktail parties and all the other food-based events that crop up during the season, you may think you’re off the hook for making your own meals. But that might increase your stress levels, says Brianna Elliott, RD.
“Fueling your body with healthy foods can actually help you deal with stress more effectively, because they’re energizing and keep hormones and blood sugar levels stable in the body,” she says.
For an especially quick hit of stress relief, she recommends omega-3 fatty acids, which can be found in fatty fish like salmon, as well as walnuts and flaxseed. These healthy fats help keep you full for longer, and they also combat inflammation — which can be an issue when you’re under chronic stress.
4. TAKE SOME MINDFULNESS MINIBREAKS
Setting aside an hour for meditation might seem as likely as Santa stopping by for dinner. Fortunately, you don’t need much time to tap into the benefits of mindfulness, a technique that requires only becoming fully aware of what’s around you.
That might involve simple tricks like taking a few moments to look closely at familiar objects, or pay attention to the way your breath moves in your body, suggests Mayo Clinic researchers.
No matter what tactics you try, the emphasis should be on taking care of yourself, especially as the holidays get busier. Put stress reduction at the top of your holiday to-do list, and you’ll likely have a much more joyous season ahead.