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Nine Ways to Beat Holiday Stress

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Last-minute shopping and meal planning making you reach for that candy bar and Diet Coke? Put them down and read this!

stressed looking mom

Lisa Sharkey: We hear so often about the stresses and strains of the holiday season -- almost more than we hear of the joy, and certainly more than we hear about concrete solutions for handling the inevitable tensions that crop up as you trim the tree. But two female doctors, Stephanie McClellan and Beth Hamilton, have some of the best advice I have heard in a long time.

Their book, "So Stressed: The Ultimate Stress-Relief Plan for Women," is a terrific guide to calming down through various simple techniques. Check out their answers to my top nine questions about holiday stress. I hope they will help you breathe easier during your family's festivities!

1) How can I make the holidays a less stressful time? Instead of maintaining your focus on all you have to accomplish in a short period of time, allow your mind to focus on the joyous reminders of the holiday season around us. Use the music going on around you to help you bring your focus out of your stressed-out mind and into the spirit of the season. Also, plan ahead: Buy a separate organizer to plan your calendar and keep track of your to-dos for the holidays. Writing your thoughts in advance will help you control and manage anxieties -- and will reduce those last-minute worries about having forgotten something important. While you're at it, build in time for exercise and relaxation, too.

The Ultimate stress relief plan

2) Stress causes me to eat, and with all the holiday cookies, candy and eggnog around, I am beating myself up. Help! As if the holidays weren't stressful enough, inevitably at this time of year, you'll be tempted with sugary, empty-calorie "comfort foods" just about wherever you go. Comforting foods can stimulate endorphin production and act as natural pain relievers. Don't be fooled! This quick sweet fix will fade quickly and instead will keep sending out signals that cause you to want to eat more. When you have a craving, eat a piece of dark chocolate. The chocolate will calm the craving and boost your endorphin production. Dark chocolate is less processed and has less sugar than other types of chocolate, but will still give you a yummy treat. Snacks high in fiber are another good choice, and will make you feel satisfied. Your digestion will also benefit. (People under stress are more prone to irritable bowel function.)

3) What simple thing can I do right before my family arrives to prepare myself for the barrage of stress? Take a music break. Program your iPod with uplifting music and have it ready. Allow yourself the time to sit and listen to just one or two songs. This engages the parasympathetic part of your nervous system, which is what helps us feel calm and soothed. Carry your iPod with you and take a one-song break whenever you feel overwhelmed.

4) How can I release all the anxiety about my dysfunctional family dynamics at holiday time? Turn your focus to things you can control. We can't control the behavior of those around us. We can only control our reactions. When we use rational thinking instead of emotional thinking, we disengage our body's harmful stress responses. It moves our thoughts from our mid-brain to the prefrontal cortex. When we use this part of our brain, we have less physical reaction in the body.

5) How can I increase my energy when all this shopping, cooking and
holiday stress exhausts me?
Load up with food that has the amino acid tryptophan to keep you from crashing. Tryptophan is needed to produce serotonin, the neurotransmitter that calms you, improves your sleep, boosts your mood, decreases irritability, curbs your cravings and increases your tolerance to pain. Sources of tryptophan are: chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, fish, milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, soybeans, almonds, cashews, peanuts and sunflower seeds.

Dr. McMillan and Hamilton

6) My husband and I handle stress in different ways. I get angry and he turns silent. How can I address our uneven stress responses -- which stress me out even more? We are all individual in the way we react under stress. Our bodies are wired differently due to genetics, early life experiences, medications we may use, etc. Women tend to be more emotional, and men tend to shut down. Knowing that it is normal for you both to process your situation in different ways may help you handle the stress. Learning about your own stress-response type can help you control your emotional reactions and may help you better understand your husband. In our book, we give tips to help you to identify your stress type, and through specific nutrition, exercise and relaxation techniques designed for each type, we teach you how to effectively fight added stress.

7) What nutritional supplements can I take during this time to help me get through it? To calm you down, give you energy and boost your immune function, we recommend:

  • Fish oil (1000 mg.)
  • Vitamin D (around 1000 mg.)
  • Vitamin C (500 to 1000 mg.)
  • Zinc (10 to 30 mg.)
  • B-complex (100 mg.)


8) My family is prone to arguments around the holidays. Is there a trick or technique I can use to keep me from getting sucked into the psychodrama?
Again, we can't control the behavior of those around us, so it is important to focus on controlling our own reactions. When we use rational thinking instead of emotional thinking, we disengage our body's harmful stress responses. It moves our thoughts from our mid-brain to the prefrontal cortex. When we use this part of our brain, we have less physical reaction in the body.

9) The one thing that tends to get me through these times is my diet soda and my coffee, but I worry they are going to ruin my health. Are they? Yes, diet soda can cause many problems. It has artificial sweetener, which scientists believe may contribute to weight gain. The brain receives signals from the stomach about the nutrients that are going to be received. When the brain receives a signal from the stomach that food is sweet, it expects to receive its major fuel source: glucose. Since artificial sweeteners don't deliver glucose to the brain, this may cause the brain to send out more hunger signals so that it can find the glucose it is looking for. Also, both coffee and soda are highly acidic when metabolized. This leads to disease, because your body has to use its calcium supplies to neutralize the acid. Switch to tea instead. For a warm, soothing drink, go for a chai tea latte.


next: 'Dear God: Can I Please Have a Christmas Tree?'
5 comments so far | Post a comment now
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