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Family Files

Ideas for keeping your holiday anxiety in check

We are in the midst of the holiday season, and many of the songs we hear are joyous and happy but this may not be a happy time for all. For some, the holidays are sad due to the absence of a loved one (because of distance or loss), a change in family life due to divorce or unresolved family issues. For others, the demands of the holiday season cause such stress or unrealistic expectations that they start feeling anxious, overwhelmed or depressed.

The first thing to do in order to help your mood and well-being is to identify how you feel. Do a body scan and think about your mood. Are you showing any of the typical signs and symptoms of someone who is stressed? Here are some common signs and symptoms:

  • Neck ache or tension in shoulders
  • Frequent headaches
  • Stomach/digestion issues
  • Excessive anxiety, worry or guilt
  • Increased anger, frustration, or hostility
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling overwhelmed or sad
  • Increased irritability
  • Increased/decreased appetite

We can all handle everyday stressors for a couple of days when trying to get through a stressful stretch. However, unmanaged stress wreaks havoc on our health and well-being. People who have chronic stress are more prone to cancer, heart disease and accelerated aging. They often have more marital problems and family dysfunction and are at higher risk for clinical depression. Chronic stress also negatively affects the brain by altering brain structure and function, which leads to impaired thinking and emotional regulation. Not so holly jolly, eh? So during this bustling time filled with holiday shopping, parties, musical performances or whatever fills your calendar, how do we maintain our health and holiday spirit?

Start with having a plan and looking ahead. Managing your calendar will help you carve out time to do the things that need to be done but also make time for your health. If you have noticed that you have neglected your physical health, budget time in your schedule for it to happen. If you are like me, if it is not on my calendar, it does not happen. Find time for your health, such as scheduling in a 15-minute walk on a work break or over a lunch hour if your evenings are packed. Another suggestion I heard a co-worker say she takes a day off from work to catch up on some things. Taking some vacation time, if available, may be worth the amount of things that you can get accomplished.

Another tip is to scale back or be okay with saying, "No." We do not have to do everything we have "always" done. Whether this be as much decorating, baking, buying, events attended. This can feel hard at first, but once you reclaim some time on your calendar and in your life for other priorities, you will find it easier.

Find the stress relievers that help you feel better. I mentioned physical exercise already; making sure to get activity in is important, but you can also do other stress busters, like simply taking three deep breaths, getting out in nature, reciting a mantra or practicing some mindfulness techniques. There are website, books and apps to learn about many of these practices.

Other ideas include talking to a friend to share what is on your mind as well as getting in some good laughs. Sleep is also vitally important. Lack of sleep lowers our tolerance for stress, and when we get our daily 7-8 hours for adults, it is like a reset button for our brain and is when our bodies heal themselves.

Keep things in perspective and do not worry about what could happen. We often worry ourselves sick over things that will never happen or over things in the past that we cannot change. Keep things in perspective. Do your best to have a plan to manage the stressful moments as well as have techniques on hand for those time when you feel your body reacting to a person or situation that may arise over the holidays. It is always ok to take a little break from a family gathering if you need some space or down time.

Here's wishing you and yours a happy holiday season and hoping that you can manage your stress over the holidays in order to enjoy the season as well as come through with good health.