Tis the season to be busy . . . and overwhelmed. Between the decorating, shopping in crowded stores, entertaining, parties, baking, preparing meals for family and friends, and getting all of those gifts and holiday cards mailed, it’s no wonder the holidays are stressful.
Of course we want to do it all, but most of us have unrealistically high expectations during this time of year. Attempting to meet those expectations can leave us less blessed and more stressed. If the holidays seem more like something to survive instead of something to celebrate, you’re not alone. Each year, millions of people suffer from increased seasonal stress and tension that rob them of the holiday spirit and leave them vulnerable to illness.
Avoid the Stress of the Season
Not only can the holidays leave you teetering on the edge of reason, this jammed-packed season can have a negative impact on your health. Stress depletes the nutrients needed to meet the demands of the busy holiday season, particularly protein and the B vitamins. Stress also can deplete vitamins A and C and the minerals magnesium and zinc. And it inhibits the body’s storage of calcium.
Stress also damages the immune system, which explains why we catch more colds when we are stressed. What’s more, it can trigger headaches, irritable bowel syndrome and depression. But stress doesn’t just result in maladies you can feel and see. It also works silently on a cellular level by generating free radicals that increase the oxidation and breakdown of healthy tissues. This may be why stress has been tied to heart disease and even some forms of cancer.
When it comes to your heart, stress — especially chronic stress — is definitely bad news. Studies show that stress can contribute to atherosclerosis, a condition marked by the buildup of plaque in the arteries. In one clinical trial of 18 healthy male doctors, German researchers found that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can cause red blood cells to clump together. The blood becomes thick and sluggish, increasing the risk of hypertension, stroke and heart attack. In another study, scientists at the University of Florida concluded that stress may lead to ruptured plaques inside the arteries or cardiac arrhythmias — two conditions that can cause death. Stress also can make a preexisting medical condition worse. People with seizure disorders, such as epilepsy, find that stress can trigger an episode. Those suffering from asthma are also more susceptible to attacks following a stressful event. According to a study of more than 5,000 young asthma sufferers by investigators at the University of Ulsan in Seoul, Korea, increased stress can trigger wheezing and breathlessness.
Fortunately, the following tips can help you keep a lid on holiday stress and help you stay healthy in the bargain.
Relax with Seasonal Scents
While freshly cut pine, spicy cinnamon and the aroma of holiday cookies may be the traditional scents of the season, surrounding yourself with aromatherapeutic fragrances can be a more effective way to help you focus and de-stress.
Researchers have found that clary sage, lavender and rose essential oils reduce anxiety and improve mood. One study of 77 nursing students in Korea found that simply inhaling lavender essential oil, known to increase relaxing alpha waves in the brain, reduced stress and anxiety. Other scents reported to have calming properties include bergamot, chamomile, frankincense, geranium, melissa and sandalwood.
Aromatherapy also can come to the rescue if your holiday to-do list leaves you mentally and physically frazzled. During a clinical trial of 144 volunteers, British researchers found that rosemary essential oil enhanced memory, alertness and contentment. A whiff of rosemary, lemon or peppermint essential oil also can help you feel more energetic.
There are many different ways aromatherapy can be used to help reduce the stress of the season. An aromatherapy room diffuser can wash an entire room with a calming fragrance. For a more personal aromatherapy experience, adding a bit of essential oil to your bathwater can turn a simple bath into a soothing spa experience. You also can sprinkle a few drops of lavender essential oil on your pillow to promote a much-needed restful night’s sleep.
For aromatherapy on the go, try sprinkling a few drops of essential oil on a cotton ball or tissue. Stash this portable stress reducer in your purse or pocket for immediate relief in the car, mall or even at a holiday party.
Knead Away Stress
When you’re mentally and physically tense, there’s nothing quite as relaxing as a professional massage. Treating yourself to the gift of a stress-relieving massage not only provides a mini-vacation in the midst of holiday chaos, it’s a healthy way to recharge.
According to the American Massage Therapists Association (AMTA), massage boosts the body’s immune system by increasing the body’s natural killer cells, which tend to break down during stressful times. Massage also can increase circulation, stimulate lymph drainage, control musculoskeletal pain, ease migraines, increase alertness and energy levels, and boost feelings of well-being.
There are a number of different types of massage. Eastern massage focuses on balancing the body’s energy flow to produce good health. Swedish massage approaches the body from an anatomical point of view and employs gliding, stroking and friction to soothe the body. Aromatherapeutic massage combines the best of Swedish massage with aromatherapy to ease anxiety and fatigue. No matter which type of massage you prefer, it’s best to find a certified massage therapist (locate one at the AMTA’s website, www.AmtaMassage. org). But if you’re short on time, even a quick neck massage at one of the kiosks at the mall can ease tension and help quell your holiday humbugs.
Take a Deep Breath
The next time you feel stressed, take note of your breathing. Is it shallow? Are you taking a breath less frequently? According to the National Institute on Aging, stress can inhibit breathing. If you find yourself stressed often, chronically impaired breathing can eventually lead to hypertension. But taking a few deep breaths infuses the blood with extra oxygen and stimulates the body to release tranquilizing endorphins.
While you are frantically searching for the perfect present, taking a few deep breaths also can help you be present. Focusing all of your attention on the physical act of breathing clears away mental clutter and brings you into the moment. It is one of the simplest yet most effective stress management techniques you’ll ever learn. Best of all, you can do it anywhere, anytime, which makes it the perfect way to instantly relax during this hectic season.
To use breathing to reduce tension, simply inhale slowly until your lungs are filled to capacity. Hold your breath for a few seconds, then exhale slowly and completely. Pause for a few seconds before repeating the process. Taking five or 10 deep, conscious breaths can significantly ease stress levels.
Stop Stress with Supplements
Taking a high-potency multivitamin during the holidays also can help you stay jolly. For instance, vitamin B6 helps transform the amino acid tryptophan into serotonin, the brain chemical that regulates mood. Magnesium matters, too, because it helps the brain release and absorb serotonin. A multivitamin also can help you stay mentally sharp. Volunteers participating in one British study found that taking a multivitamin-mineral supplement improved concentration. They also felt less tired than the volunteers who didn’t take the supplement.
A comprehensive multivitamin provides nutrients that fortify your body against the effects of stress by boosting your immune system. Antioxidants, especially vitamins A, C and E, and the minerals zinc and selenium, can help keep your defenses strong so you won’t get sick once the holidays are over.
Another supplement that can help blunt the effects of stress is phosphatidyl serine (PS), one of the fat-soluble phospholipids that help keep the brain running on all cylinders. Researchers from the University of Wales Swansea in the United Kingdom have found that taking 300 mg of PS improves mood and reduces the mental and emotional fallout that often accompanies stress. In another study, German researchers found that PS dampens stress by reducing the amount of two stress compounds, pituitary adrenal reactivity and cortisol. Early forms of PS supplements were derived from cow brains, but worries over mad cow disease prompted researchers to develop today’s effective soy-based sources of PS.
Adaptogenic and calming herbs have long been used to combat the negative effects of stress. These gentle, effective herbs work by boosting coping mechanisms, better allowing you to deal with physical, emotional and mental stress.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng). Asian ginseng tops the list of herbal stress relievers: Numerous studies support this herb’s ability to improve work performance, enhance mental function and generally increase the body’s capacity for stress. Herbalists often recommend taking 200 to 500 mg of ginseng daily for two to three weeks, followed by a one- to two-week rest period before resuming.
Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum). This highly effective adaptogen is gaining attention for a variety of health benefits. Animal studies show that holy basil modulates immune response while increasing the resistance to stress-induced biological changes. But you don’t need to eat a platter of pesto to get holy basil’s benefits. Holy basil supplements are available and the standard dose is 2,500 mg a day.
Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata). If the stressors of the season are causing sleepless nights, try passionflower. This herb has been used for centuries to reduce anxiety and induce sleep. In one review, researchers noted that this herbal sedative can ease the tension, restlessness and irritability that can prevent getting a good night’s sleep.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea). Russian research indicates that this adaptogen reduces stress and fatigue, improves memory, enhances concentration and physical fitness, and increases overall well-being. Better yet, rhodiola stimulates the immune system, enabling the body’s defenses to ward off the effects of stress. Most herbalists recommend taking 200 to 600 mg daily before meals.
Kim Erickson is the author of Drop-Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics (Contemporary Books, 2002) and a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health.