Healthy for the holidays: Tips for reducing stress and staying well throughout the season

Prioritize, know your trigger points, get enough shuteye and more advice from Fred Hutch
Dr. Bonnie McGregor
Dr. Bonnie McGregor is a behavioral psychologist at Fred Hutch. Fred Hutch file

SEATTLE – Dec. 17, 2014 – The holiday season can be a mixed blessing. While many look forward to the glittering lights, festive music, decadent treats, jovial office parties and family gatherings, they may equally dread the stress of decorating, entertaining, cooking, shopping, wrapping presents, traveling and dealing with obnoxious Uncle Harry.

Far from being a mild annoyance, stress – particularly prolonged stress – can have profound physical effects. It can compromise immune function and increase susceptibility to the common cold, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease. It can slow wound healing and speed tumor growth. It can increase the risk of unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, and skipping exercise and overeating, which can lead to weight gain.

Symptoms of stress can include sleeping difficulties, headaches, backaches, irritability, anger, indigestion and poor concentration, among many other things.

To help avoid these negative consequences, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center behavioral psychologists Bonnie McGregor, Ph.D., and Karen Syrjala, Ph.D., offer a variety of tips for reducing stress and staying healthy throughout the holiday season – and beyond.

“We feel stress when we perceive the demands of a situation exceed our resources,” McGregor explained. “Coping is our attempt to restore balance. The important word here is ‘perceive,’ because it really is our thoughts about what we need to do that make us feel overwhelmed.”

Dr. Karen Syrjala
Dr. Karen Syrjala is a behavioral psychologist at Fred Hutch who focuses on survivorship issues. Fred Hutch file

There are two main types of coping:

Problem-focused coping: This strategy addresses those aspects of a situation over which one has control. Ask for help if you’re feeling overwhelmed, and don’t have unrealistic expectations of yourself or others. “Ask yourself if you really need to do everything you think you do. Is there someone you can ask for help? Can you ask your sister-in-law to host the holiday dinner this year?” McGregor said.

Emotion-focused coping: This coping mechanism helps deal with a situation over which one has no control. In such situations, it can help to pick up the phone and talk to a friend. Better yet, get together in person with someone who listens and cares.

Self-care: McGregor also recommends taking time for self-care. Schedule regular exercise – it needn’t be strenuous and can be as simple as taking a walk. Do yoga. Meditate. Make these activities as much of a priority as trimming the tree or baking the holiday cookies.

Prioritize: What is most important to you about the holidays? Plan time for your priority and then work the other events and activities around that. “Once you are clear about your priority, and you know it will happen, it is easier to select what you can skip this year,” Syrjala said. Also, holiday activities need not be the same every year. Are there holiday events or traditions you could live without, at least for this year? Can you politely decline gatherings or obligations you no longer enjoy? “Make a note on your calendar for next year to remind yourself of what you want to skip and what you most enjoy so next year it’s even easier to embrace what makes the season meaningful for you,” Syrjala said.

Simplify: Can you bake two kinds of cookies instead of half a dozen? Can you send a cheerful holiday email instead of dozens of hand-written cards?

Know your trigger points: Ask yourself what makes you feel most pressured or irritable and what steps you can take to make the stress more manageable. For example, if you have to see a difficult relative, can you arrange something fun afterward? Delayed gratification can be the carrot on the stick to get you through a potentially difficult or unenjoyable time.

Eat healthy: Focus more on eating foods that make you feel your best, such as fruits and vegetables, and less on trying not to eat certain foods. Go ahead and have that piece of pie, but keep it to one slice and make sure you also get lean protein, fiber and healthful fats. Eat a healthy snack before going to a party so it’s easier to indulge in moderation. “When you eat a small, healthy meal before going to a party, it’s easier to eat fewer sweets and fatty foods but you don’t feel deprived,” Syrjala said.

Get enough sleep: According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, sleep plays a vital role in physical and mental health, quality of life and safety. It helps the brain work properly and improves learning, concentration, creativity and decision-making. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke, among other ailments.

The benefits of getting adequate sleep include the fact that it helps maintain a healthy balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry or full, and so getting enough shuteye during the holidays may help you turn down that second – or third – helping of Aunt Thelma’s famous cornbread stuffing.

Tips for getting good ZZZ’s include going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time each morning, and sleeping in a room that’s neither too hot nor too cold.

What’s the optimal amount of sleep? While there’s no magic number of hours, the American Cancer Society conducted two surveys of more than 1 million adults and found less mortality in those who slept seven hours a night as compared to those who slept more or fewer than that.

Give yourself permission to acknowledge and honor sadness, if necessary: The holidays can bring moments of sadness for some, especially those who have lost a loved one in the past year, and yet it often feels like we should just be merry and bright. “Feeling like you need to be cheery when you are not doesn’t help,” McGregor said. “Allowing yourself time to acknowledge and honor the sadness or loss may free you up later to see the light in the darkness.”

Know how alcohol affects your health: If you drink, do so in moderation (one drink a day for women and two for men). Before a holiday party, plan ahead what and how much you’ll drink. Alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, such as sparkling water with lime, to help pace yourself and stay hydrated. Drink a wine spritzer (half wine, half soda water) to stretch one drink into two.

The bottom line, both Syrjala and McGregor agree, is to give yourself a break and not beat yourself up if you overindulge or turn into the Grinch from time to time. There’s always next year.

Kristen Woodward