It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Putting decorations on Christmas trees, driving through neighborhoods full of carefully curated light displays, warm mugs of spiced beverages, long talks in front of fireplaces, Christmas concerts put on by kindergarteners, and time well spent with people we love. There is a kind of magic in the air this time of year.
But along with all the best parts of the holidays, there is another side of the coin; one that may be affecting your brain health. Stress is ever-present for many people throughout the holiday season. We have come to accept holiday stress as normal, to the detriment of our wellness.
The good news is that there are many things we can do to deactivate the body’s stress response. First, let’s look at where holiday stress most often comes from:
- Mental stress: This time of year has a lot of moving parts, which can drain us quickly. Long before December, we begin to think about holiday travel, coordinating schedules, planning dinners and parties, and gift shopping. We spend many weeks making and executing plans, sometimes exhausting our mental resources long before January.
- Emotional stress: We spend a lot of time with family members and friends we may not have healthy relationships with. Losses experienced during the year can feel heavier during the holidays. We want to feel gratitude for the good in our lives but sometimes become powerfully aware of what’s missing.
- Physical stress: The busy nature of the season often results in a decrease in physical care. We’re less likely to rest well and to get adequate exercise and nutrition. Running on comfort foods, sugar, alcohol, and reduced sleep, our bodies become tired and depleted easily.
Culturally, we look at these times of intense stress as just part of life. We smile and bear it, planning to make up for it when life slows down. But science paints a different picture—prolonged stress changes our brains, in ways that range from impairing our short-term memory to an increased likelihood of mental health disturbances. Chronic stress does damage to the brain that can’t always be undone. It is important that we learn to manage our stress. Prevention is always the best medicine!
Here are five ways you can counteract stress and support your brain health this December:
- Meditate: The holidays are a great time to intentionally make space for a meditation practice. Even if it’s only five minutes a day, retreat to a quiet place and breathe. If your brain won’t slow down, give it something else to focus on by using this simple box breathing technique:
Visualize a square, and imagine your breath moving like a dot along its edges. Starting at the top right corner, breathe in for four counts as the dot travels across the top of the square. Hold for four counts as the dot travels down the right side. Breathe out as it moves along the bottom edge of the square and hold for four counts as the dot travels back up the left side.
- Journal: It can be helpful to verbally process your feelings during the holiday season, even if only with yourself. Pay attention to your emotions and make note of them. This practice can involve writing full pages. It can also be as simple as creating a bullet-point list of things that have happened and a brief description of how you felt about them.
- Move: You don’t have to carve out time to go to the gym every day in order to receive the benefits of movement. Bundle up and go for a brisk walk. Dance with your children to Christmas music. Jump rope in the garage. There are endless ways to be physically active; get creative and make time to get your blood moving.
- Hydrate: For every alcoholic or caffeinated beverage you consume, drink a glass of water or a mug of herbal tea. Our bodies need to be properly hydrated in order to function properly; in a season full of dehydrating foods and beverages, a little intentional hydration goes a long way.
- Sleep: Making sleep a priority is key. Our bodies and brains repair themselves during our sleep cycles. When the quality or quantity of our sleep is poor, we miss out on the restoration process. We are less focused, less resilient, and we have fewer internal resources for managing stress and anxiety.
Our hope is always to provide you with more resources for managing holiday stress and supporting your brain health in the coming year; to take a look at the ways BrainTap can help, click here!