Beating Holiday Stress
It is possible to survive the holiday frenzy without feeling frantic -- if you know how. Here are top tips from some of the nation's leading stress experts.
Stress Master: Nutritional
biochemist Judith Wurtman, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, and author of the book Managing Your Mind & Mood Through
Strategy:Eat to stave off tension as
well as hunger.
- Tip 1. Carbo-charge your body. It's 4 p.m. on Dec. 23, and you're
stuck in an interminable line at the post office. It's time for a snack, but
not just any snack. Wurtman says the secret is choosing carbohydrates with low
or no fat -- maybe a handful of pretzels or, if you crave something sweet, a
few Tootsie Rolls or jellybeans. "At least 30 grams' worth -- look at
package labels to get amounts,'' Wurtman advises. Her research over several
years shows such carbohydrates boost the powerful brain chemical serotonin,
which helps the body feel calmer. Curiously, one snack to avoid at such times
is fruit: fructose is the only carbohydrate that appears not to stimulate
- Tip 2. Eat mini-meals. When you eat stress-reducing foods, the
effects last only about two to three hours. If you're up against chronic
holiday stress, try eating several small meals or snacks throughout the day
instead of a couple of big ones. Just be careful to keep your total intake of
calories about the same.
- Tip 3. Zero in on stress points and fix them. The holidays often
generate a vicious cycle: Stress causes people to eat
more and richer foods, which causes them to gain weight, which makes them
feel even more stressed. "It's better to prevent or deflect the stress than
deal with it,'' says Wurtman. For example, say you're a working mom who comes
home at 6 p.m. to begin your second job, and you eat because you feel
overwhelmed. Instead, plan ahead. Give your family written instructions on what
to do to help you, and give yourself 10 guilt-free minutes of time-out to
Stress Master:Robert Sapolsky,
professor of biological sciences and neurology at Stanford University and
author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress,
Stress-Related Disease and Coping.
Strategy:Put whatever's stressing
you in perspective. Chances are your stress level isn't high because you're
running for your life from an attacking lion. So just imagine explaining your
angst over failing to create a Martha Stewart table to a really empathetic
giraffe. If your holiday woes would sound like utter nonsense to the giraffe,
you're describing stressors of your own making and you can conquer
- Tip 1. Ratchet down stress by lowering expectations. Remember, those
Norman Rockwell families are strictly two-dimensional -- don't expect them to
bear much resemblance to your own family gatherings. "For people living at
the other end of the country, this is often one of the few or only times of the
year to see some people of great significance,'' Sapolsky observes. The result:
"this stressful pressure to cram all this emotion and bonding and intimacy into a very hectic few
days.'' Expect some irritations and imperfections, then relax and have a good
time in spite of them.
- Tip 2. Don't go it alone. While the notion of holiday stress
conjures up visions of jam-packed mall parking lots and tense dinners with the
in-laws, many people suffer stress because they face the holidays by
themselves. Sapolsky advises getting proactive by connecting with family,
friends, even others who face similar isolation.
- Tip 3. Remember the reason for the season. Some people find the
holiday season stressful because it seems robbed of its authentic meaning.
Instead they are awash in a culture conspiring to crassly cash in on something
that once had great personal significance. The antidote, says Sapolsky:
"Take the time and effort to reaffirm what this season really means to you,
whether it is about family, community, religion. Go help someone in need, to
help yourself reaffirm what it is all about.''