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Combatting Holiday Stress: Mind-Body Techniques for Relaxation and Resilience

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Combatting Holiday Stress: Mind-Body Techniques for Relaxation and Resilience

It’s the holiday season, filled with excitement, gatherings, and gifts galore, but for some, it also means anticipating the well-known stress that is due to arrive. A recent poll found that 63% of U.S. participants would describe the holidays as stressful. This is not shocking, as many people in our world today are experiencing heightened financial stress, health stressors and overwhelm in their daily lives. 

The holiday season, for some, can intensify this feeling or cause people who don’t usually feel stressed to experience it in the busyness of it all. Managing holiday stress can be supportive of your overall health and well-being and ultimately spark some cheer back into your life. There are a variety of integrative medicine mind-body techniques to help manage stress, which can support relaxation, adaptation, and resilience. 


What is Holiday Stress?

Holiday stress impacts people across the globe this time of year. From November to January, stressors and challenges become associated with this season's demands, responsibilities, and expectations. While life can induce stress, everyday stress is not typically focused on a specific societal event or the intensity of the holidays. 

A survey done by the American Psychological Association found that 89% of U.S. adults are experiencing stress over concerns related to the holiday season. Sources of holiday stress range from family dynamics, scheduling chaos, financial pressure, social obligations, health maintenance, and heightened emotions around holiday celebrations. Concerns about money- not having enough and overspending during this time, are financial stressors that weigh heavily on people. Socioeconomic status factors into this, as households with low to middle-class incomes expressed higher stress ratings than households making six figures. Many people report that the holidays can be joyful and magical and still stimulate stress. 

Organizing family gatherings, gift decision-making and purchasing, and celebrating the season without loved ones present are some of the prominent stress inducers. The holidays can be a stark reminder of a passed family member or friend's absence or make for awkward situations, knowing you’ll have to see family you’ve been avoiding. Some individuals have no one to spend the holidays with, which can peak feelings of loneliness and depression. Lastly, maintaining health and wellness goals can be challenging with holiday treat temptations, alternations in regular workout routines, and the mental and emotional impact the holidays may bring. 

The Impact of Stress on Mind and Body 

The effects of stress on health range from mental to physical detriments. Stress can have a profound effect on many organ systems, such as your brain, immune system, heart, gastrointestinal function, and endocrine system. One study found that even a minor lingering stressor can result in long-term physical health. 

The stress response in the body can lead to physiological shifts in cortisol through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and negatively set off your “fight-or-flight” nervous system response. In terms of women’s health, chronic stress can be a risk factor for depression, autoimmunity, hormone imbalances, gut disorders, and weight gain. Your overall health is somewhat dependent on the interplay between stress and well-being. Having accessible coping mechanisms can help you manage and minimize stress to achieve wellness and optimal health.

In a fast-paced world, it takes intentionality to understand how stress affects you and explore how you can best manage it. Integrative medicine has valuable evidence-based tools that can help you manage stress during the holiday season and beyond. Here are some practical and effective ways to induce relaxation and build resilience this winter. 

Mindfulness and Meditation Techniques 

Combating stress through mindfulness or meditation techniques can be a practical tool to reach for this holiday. It may sound inconsequential, but mindfulness is simply the practice of bringing awareness to your thoughts and being present at the moment. Allowing yourself to stop and pay close attention to ideas racing through your mind, thoughts that come and go, and what is going on in your surroundings is the basis of mindfulness practice. Being more present can ignite enjoyment and appreciation, which are significant countermeasures to stress. 

Meditation combines breath with mindfulness to induce relaxation in the mind and body. Mindfulness during meditation emphasizes non-judgemental awareness of your thoughts, senses, and breath. Whatever you are feeling or thinking is meant to observe, make a mental, and then release the thought. When your brain starts to wander, bringing your awareness back to a single thought is a foundational piece in meditation. Over time and with practice, your racing thoughts diminish, and inner peace can be felt. 

A meta-analysis on mindfulness-based therapy (MBT) found it to be an effective therapy for anxiety, depression, and stress. If you are someone who is experiencing stress this holiday, utilizing guided meditation or an online platform could help you. 

Step-By-Step Guide for Meditation

Simple meditation techniques that can be accessed when needed include just four steps: 

1. Sit or lay comfortably. 

2. Focus on your breath and the sensations you feel in your breathing pattern and throughout your body. 

3. Expand your awareness. Once focused on your breathing, allow your mind to focus on other areas of your senses and become aware of nuances around you, like the sun shining down on you, the windy breeze, or an idea that pops in. 

4. With each new thought or feeling, embrace it! When random thoughts come racing in, refocus your awareness on the topic until the topic is naturally released. 

Repeat this process for as long of a time frame as you choose. With a step-by-step guide, you can diffuse holiday stress in as little as 10 minutes. 

Breathwork Exercises for Stress Reduction

There is one tool we all have at our disposal, and that is our breath. Did you know you can control how your body responds to stress by controlling your breathing pattern? Breathwork is an exercise of intentional and controlled breathing patterns, which can shift physiological responses. There are a variety of practical techniques and an uptick in people seeking breathwork guidance as part of their healing journey. 

During this holiday season, you can tap into your bodily resources by incorporating breathing exercises for relaxation. One preventative measure you could integrate this holiday is to start your day with intentional breathwork for stress management. This can be two minutes, five minutes, or twenty minutes. In those moments, be present with your breath, noting how you breathe, i.e-short, shallow breaths, breathing through your nose and out through your mouth, engaging your belly muscles, and even how your shoulders, neck, and body are positioned. Once you recognize how you are breathing, take a few minutes to do breathing exercises in a relaxed posture. 

Implementing breathwork first thing in the morning or any moment during stress can be quick and easy. In the 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise method, it takes 19 seconds to begin engaging a parasympathetic or “rest and digest” nervous system response. In this simple technique, you’ll start by breathing in through your nose for a count of 4, holding that in for 7 seconds, and exhaling out of your mouth for a count of 8. In situations where you feel an intensity of overwhelmed or heightened emotions, you can extend the exhale even longer for deeper access to the relaxing sensation. 

Yoga and Movement-Based Stress Relief 

Intentional movements and yoga both have the potential to calm the mind, reduce stress-induced physiological responses, and build emotional resilience. While some people exercise to build muscle or lose body fat, over 1000 scientific studies have found that physical activity positively affects mental health. Stress relief from movement comes in part from the endorphins that are released. This happiness-inducing hormone sends a signal through the nervous system and to the brain to activate reward centers. Endorphins can flip that switch and pull your mind out of a stressful state. 

Any physical activity,  from dancing around the Christmas tree to going to shoveling the snow to yoga, can induce these feel-good molecules, thus making the holiday season more enjoyable. Yoga is a form of exercise that involves putting your body in different poses that promote balance and move energy through the body. Incorporating breathwork into their yoga flow is something many yogis do. 

One study found that reducing stress through yoga can also help alleviate symptoms of depression in those with major depressive disorder. This is excellent news, as the holiday season can impact people’s mental and emotional state. Here are eight beginner-friendly yoga poses you can do right at home to begin alleviating holiday stress today, including tree pose, crescent warrior, and downward-facing dog. Taking a beginner’s Hatha yoga class would be an excellent way to sneak away from the hustle and bustle of the season and take some time for yourself. 

The Power of Positive Thinking and Visualization

The mind has the power to reframe thoughts and visualize desired outcomes. Positive thinking and visualization can both be avenues for achieving peace of mind during stressful times when people tend to think negative thoughts. Positive thinking involves taking negative self-talk and reframing it in a positive light. Implementing this, even in small bits, could help you decrease stress in your daily life or in heightened times such as the holidays. 

Visualization, or imagery, is conjuring up images, sounds, smells, and feelings in your mind or things that bring you peace, love, joy, and fulfillment. You can think of this as daydreaming with intention. Practicing this can allow you to mentally remove yourself from stressful situations and find pockets of calmness. 

Step-By-Step Guide to Visualization

Here is a 6-step guide to visualization: 

1) Beginning as you would with meditation. Find a quiet space with no noise or distractions. 

2) Sit or lie down in a quiet and comfortable position. 

3) Engage in a relaxing breathing pattern- deep and slow breaths in and out. 

4) Prepare a script to be read. The script should guide you through your desired visualization. 

5) Practice. The more reps you get in, the better prepared you will be at peak times of stress. 

Suppose worry and anxiety over the holidays induce stress. In that case, research has shown that participants had reduced incidences of anxiety and worry within one week of implementing positive thinking with or without visualizations. This easy-to-execute practice can provide abundant relief at no cost and minimal effort.                           

Cultivating Healthy Habits and Boundaries

Creating or maintaining healthy habits and boundaries can significantly reduce the detriments of holiday stress. Habits are the little things you do daily, such as your diet, hydration, sleep, community involvement, and work/life balance, that add up to make a significant impact on your quality of life. People tend to set aside their everyday routines during the holiday, like exercising and making nutritious meals at home. Sticking with your routine as much as possible can help your body maintain a familiarity that assists self-regulation. It’s okay to enjoy some holiday treats, but remind yourself often how well your body feels when you stick to a nutrition plan that keeps you thriving. 

Setting boundaries during the holidays can help minimize stress. Planning for what your holiday season will look like, how many commitments you’ll make that are still in alignment with your well-being, saying no when you feel like a “holiday obligation” does not sit right with you, and taking breaks from what is inducing stress, are all ways in which you can enjoy the holiday season but still protect your peace. 


Mind-Body Techniques For Holiday Stress

Experiencing stress in life is inevitable but does not have to be debilitating during the holidays. If you know this season induces stress, I encourage you to step back and evaluate how to prevent, mitigate, and support yourself during this time. You may find more joy in the holiday season by incorporating breathwork, meditation, mindful movements such as yoga, reframing your mindset with positivity and optimistic visualization, and honoring your habits and boundaries. While it may not be easy, embracing relaxation during the holidays may be the greatest gift you can give yourself!

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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