Denise McVey knows holiday stress all too well. To be sure, she loves the
holidays: going caroling, shopping, buying cards, enjoying the first snow, and,
most of all, loving the look of delight on her toddler’s face on Christmas
morning. But as the days until the holidays dwindle and the lines at the mall
get longer, McVey is so beset by season-induced stress that, when the New Year
rolls around, she’s spent. “Colds, flu, you name it, every year I get it; I’ve
had shingles eight times,” says the 40-year-old owner of a creative agency in
Why do many people feel so much more stress at this time of year? We tend to
blame worsening traffic, crowded malls, and incessant commercials pushing
holiday consumption, but a key culprit is our own memories, according to Ronald
Nathan, PhD, clinical professor at Albany Medical College in New York. “When we
think about the holidays, we dwell on the past and what went wrong, or we
romanticize it and make it impossible to re-create,” he says.
He counsels people to carefully examine their thoughts and expectations, and
not drive themselves crazy finding “the perfect gift” or planning “the perfect
party.” “Instead,” he says, “lower your expectations, and overestimate --
rather than underestimate -- your time.”
Stress and the immune system
Easing up on yourself over the holidays is important because the connection
between stress and illness is real, says Simon A. Rego, PsyD, an assistant
professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Albert Einstein College of
Medicine and associate director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical
Center in Bronx, N.Y.
“The controversy that stress causes disease is pretty much over. We’re now
teasing out how stress does it,” he says. In fact, a new study explains how
stress may weaken the immune system. Each cell contains a tiny “clock” called a
telomere, which shortens each time the cell divides. To counter this effect,
the body also produces an enzyme, telomerase, which protects the cell and
prevents further shortening by adding more DNA to the end of the telomere.
So far, so good -- but under stress, the body pumps out cortisol, a hormone
that suppresses this protective enzyme. The study found that people under
chronic stress have shorter telomeres, which, researchers say, means they are
more vulnerable to a host of ailments.