Ways to combat stress during the holidays

During the holiday season, stress levels often increase. Short duration stress is easier to handle, but when it becomes chronic it can take a heavy toll on your health and well-being. Some conditions related to chronic stress include depression, skin conditions, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal disorders, headaches, sleep disturbances and weight gain. While there is no way to avoid stress, there are numerous ways to help manage it. Some tips:

Be aware of your breathing patterns. When stressed, breathing becomes more shallow and rapid. If you catch this happening to you, focus on taking deeper and longer breaths, which automatically begins to settle nerves and re-direct energy. Even imagining the act of slowly inhaling and exhaling is enough to help most people feel calmer. To use this technique, you don’t have to wait until you are feeling tense, it can bring relief any time.

Nearly one-third of Americans report living with what they feel is extreme stress, and as many as 40 percent have experienced work-related illness or burnout. Stress is your body’s fight or flight response to a real or imagined threat, and can work for you or against you. If recognized as a natural response and directed appropriately, it actually serves to your advantage. When adrenaline is elevated, for example, it can help to make you more productive. The key is to be in tune with how you react to difficult situations, and not overuse the stress response. This helps to spare the wear and tear on the mind and body that might otherwise occur, and puts more control back in your hands.

Exercise is an absolute must for anyone who experiences chronic stress. Why? Physical activity provides an ideal outlet for getting rid of negativity that would otherwise be turned inward, and the choices are endless. Whether going out for a walk, joining a gym, or finding an exercise video to do at home, working out is a golden opportunity to get away from it all and spend some time taking care of yourself. Reactions to stressful situations vary from person to person. For those who tend to get agitated or angry, more intense forms of activity like punching a heavy bag, long distance running or power walking can do wonders. For others, feelings of fatigue, sadness or hopelessness surface. In this case, motivation is harder to come by, and the idea of exercising may seem out of the question. If this happens to you, it important to re-focus on what research clearly shows, which is that exercise changes body chemistry, automatically increasing feel-good hormones.

Aches and pains? When under stress, the muscles involuntarily contract, which can leave you feeling stiff, achy and out of sorts. The neck, back and shoulders are the most commonly affected areas. To combat these muscle contractions, consider massage, or simply take a few minutes to gently stretch. This can make all the difference, leaving you relaxed and refreshed.

Volunteer. Reaching out to someone in need has the power to change a negative mindset into a positive one. We can sometimes get stuck in a pattern of worry and anxiety, self-focusing to the extreme. Helping someone less fortunate is a means to be pro-active rather than reactive, using your talents and ingenuity while making a real difference in the world.

Consider becoming a pet owner. Studies have shown that people who enjoy the company of pets have a significantly lower heart rate and blood pressure when under stress.

Write it down. In short, pinpoint the sources of stress as well as your responses to them. Putting thoughts to paper makes things clearer, and affords the opportunity to think logically instead of emotionally about the situation.

Prioritize. Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that we deserve down time, so relax and unwind as often as possible. Something as simple as a 15-minute nap can make a huge difference in your energy levels and mood. Try distancing yourself from the telephone, computer and television when you get home. Plan something rewarding. Treat yourself to a new outfit, manicure, pedicure or massage; or curl up with a good book or take a relaxing bath. People who are stressed out often find it difficult to sleep, so do your best to spend an hour or so before bedtime to unwind.

If despite your best efforts your stress is truly unmanageable, seek help. Insomnia, depression, body image disorders, anxiety or anything affecting your ability to live a happy, productive life should be taken seriously and dealt with as soon as possible.

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