It’s probably not realistic to think we can eliminate all of our holiday stress. After all, things like family gatherings, traffic and crowds, and missing loved ones who are no longer with us are pretty much par for the course. The next best thing we can do is integrate stress-relieving techniques into our daily routine in order to minimize the negative effects of stress on mind and body.
Don’t let stress outweigh the enjoyment of this special time of joy and celebration!
Repercussions of Unchecked Stress
According to the American Institute of Stress, just about every system and part of the body is negatively affected by stress including the nervous system, musculoskeletal system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, gastrointestinal system, and reproductive system.
Here are just a few of the conditions that have been linked with stress:
- Depression and anxiety
- Heart attack and stroke
- High blood pressure
- Immune system disturbances
- GERD and peptic ulcers
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Skin issues
- Neurodegenerative diseases
Considering that stress is a contributing factor in the onset and exacerbation of just about every disease state, this list is by no means exhaustive.
Though a small amount of daily stress is normal and even beneficial, it is well-established that excessive and chronic stress is detrimental to our health and well-being. Recent research suggests that stress can even override the benefits of a healthy diet! While a nutrient rich, anti-inflammatory diet is still important is helping sustain our bodies, particularly during times of increased stress, the bottom line is that additional strategies are needed to combat its negative effects.
Effective Stress-Relieving Activities & Treatments
Even though we don’t typically think of exercise as being relaxing, it is one of the most effective strategies for reducing anxiety and stress. There are many types of exercise to choose from, but aerobic exercise in particular has been shown to improve mood, reduce pain, and create a sustained calming effect.
Exercise also helps our resiliency against stress. During and after exercise, chemical changes such as increased endorphins (“feel good” hormones) and decreased cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) can explain these benefits.
Additional benefits of exercise that indirectly effect our overall stress level include more energy, a stronger immune system, better sleep, and boosted self-confidence. Too much intense exercise can actually be counter-productive, creating additional physiological stress on the body. So balance is the key!
This treatment from ancient Chinese medicine has become one of the most utilized and well-researched CAM (complementary and alternative medicine) therapies in the United States. One study revealed that acupuncture actually stops the stress response in its tracks, as demonstrated by the participants’ physiological response to a stressor following a treatment. Interestingly, the study used an acupuncture point on the abdomen, suggesting a possible “gut-brain” connection for this finding.
A variety of other mechanisms have been explored to explain the positive effects acupuncture has on depression, pain, blood pressure and other symptoms of stress. These include:
- Increased release of immune system cells
- Activation of natural opioid system (reduces pain, increases sleep)
- Stimulation of the hypothalamus and pituitary (the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal-axis, or HPA-axis, plays a major role in the stress response)
- Change in neurotransmitter and neuro-hormone secretion
We all know that getting a massage is a relaxing experience and feels great, too. But what you may not know is that science confirms that massage therapy is great for our health and has multiple benefits related to stress.
Research shows that massage can help reduce stress, anxiety, chronic pain, and high blood pressure. Fibromyalgia, which has been strongly associated with stress, is one of the chronic pain conditions that responds very well to massage therapy. It has also been shown to reduce inflammation, one of the most destructive mechanisms in the body resulting from chronic stress.
While an increase in white blood cell count after a massage might not sound like a benefit that has anything to do with stress, it actually does. For example, we need a healthy immune response to kick those winter colds and there are not too many things more stressful than getting sick when you don’t have time to spend the day in bed! Massage therapists often use aromatherapy and relaxing music during a session as well, which combines three powerful stress-busting methods at one time.
4. Yoga, Meditation, and Deep Breathing
Another ancient practice that has gained enormous popularity in the United States is yoga. While there are over a hundred different types, most sessions consist of these three components: breathing exercises, meditation, and assuming postures, or poses. Yoga can be practiced alone or led by an instructor in a class setting.
The benefits for both mind and body are far-reaching, but here are a few highlights:
- Reduces chronic pain
- Helps alleviate insomnia
- Lowers blood pressure
- Decreases inflammation
- Increases respiration, energy, and vitality
- Increase cardiovascular and circulatory health
- Improve mood
- Helps manage stress (relaxes the mind, increases coping skills)
- Increases concentration
Two of the components of yoga – meditation and deep breathing – are effective stress-relieving techniques on their own accord. The two most popular types of meditation are transcendental and mindfulness. The different types of meditation generally have these commonalities: quiet location, specific posture, focus of attention, and open attitude.
Mindfulness can be as simple as taking a moment to “stop and smell the roses” either literally or figuratively.
Deep breathing has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes things like rest and digestion (as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system, which is activated during acute or chronic stress). In addition, different breathing patterns have been linked to different emotions, suggesting that we can change our emotions through targeted breathing practices.
Many of the chronic symptoms and conditions associated with stress have been shown to improve using biofeedback. This is a technique used to train someone to have more control over bodily processes that we often don’t think about, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
In biofeedback, electrodes are attached to the skin or placed in hands to monitor bodily responses. During a session, patients watch and learn to change their body’s responses, based on instant feedback they get from measurements. Biofeedback is effective and commonly used for the following conditions (and others):
- Tension headaches and migraines
- High blood pressure
- Anxiety and depression
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Chronic pain
- Urinary incontinence
There are three types of biofeedback: electromyography (EMG), thermal biofeedback, and neurofeedback, or electroencephalography (EEG). Generally, patients need 8-10 sessions, but results vary depending on the individual situation.
It is clear that the holidays bring extra stressors. It is also clear that too much stress can have numerous deleterious effects on our mental and physical health. So take time today to consider these strategies, do further research, or talk to others about their preferred methods of beating stress.
If time and finances are limited, you can start by simply setting aside a few extra minutes per day to meditate in a quiet area of your own house or engage in another activity that you find relaxing, like reading a book or taking a walk. Wouldn’t it be great to get to January with only fond memories, vibrant health, and an excitement for the new year to show for it? We hope this information will help you have that kind of a holiday season.
For even more stress-reducing tips, read this!