Put your science cap on for second: your body is designed to react to stress in a way that will protect you from threats, like predators. I'm sure you've heard of the "fight or flight" response. When you encounter perceived threats your hypothalamus, located at the base of your brain, sounds an alarm. Through a series of nerve and hormone changes, your adrenal glands are signaled to release a surge of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline raises blood pressure and increases your heart rate. Cortisol, the main stress hormone, interrupts the immune and digestive system's normal functioning.
These days, it's not often that we have to wrestle saber tooth tigers with our bare hands, but life in this century brings about a unique kind of stress: constant stress. Work, school, kids, money, maintaining a social life (what's that?), your body treats these daily stressors as threats, and reacts as such. When your body remains in this heightened stress-response state, with all your hormones elevated and pumping, your body's processes can suffer over time. Overexposure to stress chemicals can elevate your risk of sleep issues, digestive problems, depression, obesity, and heart disease.
The holiday season is the worst time for stress. Stay sane by treating each stressor as your body does--as an aggressor--and fight back with a guaranteed stress buster.
STRESSOR: A million party invites.
Thanksgiving. Friendsgiving. Ugly sweater parties. White Elephant gift exchanges. The list of parties you are invited to this time of year suddenly becomes eight miles long and every single one of them is deep fried, wrapped in bacon and then soaked in alcohol. Your best intention of just popping your head in to say hi turns into a drunken, calorie-filled late night, topped off with a hangover-induced snooze-button-hitting frenzy that leaves you on the couch craving a greasy breakfast instead of hitting the gym or being otherwise productive. All of a sudden, that innocent party has turned two days of your life into a blur of bad decisions.
BUST IT: Just say no.
The fewer parties, the better. Prioritize your time because it's important. Pick the parties you can't live without, like your annual family tree lighting ceremony, and skip the extras you can, like your friend's boyfriend's sister's office party. Even if you are met with "Awwws" and "You haaaaave to comes" stay strong--you'll appreciate the rejuvenating night's sleep much more the next morning than the hangover.
STRESSOR: Overspending on gifts.
Everyone has dreams of giving that PERFECT gift that makes your child squeal or your girlfriend faint, but often times that means putting yourself into debt that will chase you long after that gift isn't "cool" anymore. Then there are the obligation gifts: The mailman. The babysitter. The party hostess. Your boss that hates you. It adds up. And then, the tips! Does everyone suddenly deserve to be tipped for doing the same job they do all year round?
BUST IT: Shrink your list...and your budget.
Money is one of the biggest stressors no matter what time of year. Don't get caught up in the thinking that the more you spend, the more you care. Only buy gifts for the very most important people in your life, and do it early to avoid having to engage with the psychotic holiday shopping crowds. Or better yet, make something simple, from the heart. Even though it will save you money, knitting scarves for everyone will take forever, still stressing you out and giving you carpal tunnel. Make a few big batches of, say, a healthy trail mix or throw together all the dry ingredients for one of your favorite holiday cookie recipes in a festive jar with the recipe attached. These types of gifts are great for everyone, from your dog walker to your dear Aunt Sally, they are cheap, and you can do it all in one afternoon.
GROAN. Holiday travel is the stuff slapstick movies are made of: delayed flights, sprints across the airport, lost luggage, forgotten children (KEVIN!), car trouble and anything else Murphy's Law can throw your way. Not to mention, traveling itself is tough on the body. Sitting for hours at a time can leave you surprisingly drained and changing time zones can throw your body clock all kinds of out of whack.
BUST IT: Plan.
There's little you can do to control any travel situation, but you can do as much as you can to make the process as seamless as possible. The rest you are just going to have to breathe through. Pack early and pack light. Make sure everyone is on the same page with what they are taking with them, when you are leaving and what will happen when you get to there. Keep young and easily bored passengers occupado with as many distractions as possible. Make sure everyone goes to the bathroom before you leave and everyone has enough snacks to prevent a cranky hunger-fueled meltdown. From there, just learn to breathe deep, calm your thoughts and remember to relax. Serenity now...
STRESSOR: The Big Meal.
Whether it's your first time cooking The Big Meal or the fiftieth, it's a whole day affair. Holidays are centered around food, which is why this time of year is prime time weight-gain season, and it really puts the pressure on for everything to go off without a hitch. We all have dreams of serving that meal to our 12+ guests, where everything is so perfectly planned it all arrives on the table fresh and piping hot and the gluten-intolerant, the carb watchers, the diabetics and the picky eaters are all perfectly satisfied. Now wouldn't that be a Christmas miracle? It's enough pressure to make your head pop.
BUST IT: Cheat, kind of.
Don't waste your time on any other meals. If Christmas morning you're cooking the dinner, just toss out a few muffins, hard boiled eggs and fruit, and you are good to go. Cook everything you can for The Big Meal ahead of time so you can just mix, heat and serve. From there, ask for help. Don't be shy about asking your guests to bring a relevant dish--hey, they're eating too, so why should you shoulder the bill and the work? Not to mention it's your carpet everyone is going to be spilling wine all over, so it's the least they can do. Most people feel obligated to bring a dish anyway, so avoid a million random hors d'oeuvres and assign traditional sides, like green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, a big salad, and pies. Then, all you are left with is the main event and a few gaps to fill, plus a whole load of dishes (you may have to call in a few favors for help with that one.)
Some more ways to bust holiday stress include getting plenty of sleep and keeping a regular fitness routine, both of which will even out your hormones and suppress stress levels.
Don't put so much stress on yourself you make yourself sick. Eliminate what you can. Ask for help. Delegate. Work out daily. Most importantly, take some me time to enjoy yourself. Remember: the saying is HAPPY Holidays.
Kelly Turner is a Seattle-based ACE-certified personal trainer and professional fitness writer. She began writing after becoming frustrated with the confusing and conflicting fitness information in the media and the quick-fix, gimmick-centered focus of the fitness industry itself. Her no-nonsense, practical advice has been featured on DietsInReview.com, FitnessMagazine.com, Yahoo! Shine, and she has a regular fitness column in The Seattle Times. Kelly has her own blog at www.kellyturnerfitness.com or follow her on Twitter @KellyTurnerFit.