Author - Sue Inonog, MD, Internal Medicine, Primary Care
The holidays are often considered a joyous time of gathering with loved ones, but for some, the holidays evoke very different feelings. The thought of traveling or hosting a big gathering may fill you with stress. Some may feel the stress of being unable to reunite with loved ones. The holidays can bring a lot of mixed and intense emotions.
When stress grabs ahold of our minds and bodies, we quickly feel those effects. That response you feel – the heart pounding, faster breathing, shakiness, muscle tension, and/or anxiety - is the result of the release of chemical messengers in the body that evolved from our need to survive a threat. This is called the “fight-or-flight” response. While catching a flight at the airport or making sure there is enough to feed a party of 20 in your home is not a life-threatening situation, your body can overreact to these stressors.
What Stress Does to Our Bodies
With the fight or flight response, one part of our nervous system, called the “sympathetic nervous system”, releases chemicals called norepinephrine and adrenaline. These chemical messengers (“neurotransmitters”) bind to receptors on various organs and tissues inside our bodies, such as the heart, blood vessels, lungs and muscles. As a result, we can experience increases in blood pressure and heart rate, an opening of our airways to breathe in more oxygen, and a tensing up of muscles for action. The brain also sends hormone signals to apart of the body called the “adrenal glands”, which sit on top of our kidneys. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released by the adrenal glands and travel to various areas in our body. As already described, adrenaline is both a hormone released by the adrenal glands as well as a neurotransmitter released by the sympathetic nervous system. Cortisol is a hormone that helps release sugar (glucose) stored in the liver into our bloodstream to provide our bodies the energy to handle the stressor before us. Cortisol also has a role in regulating inflammation in our bodies, blood pressure, sleep-wake cycles, and metabolism.
While the stress response can serve a meaningful purpose when addressing a short-term threat, prolonged activation of the stress response can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds. We can develop health conditions such as chronically elevated blood pressure, heart disease, blood sugar regulation problems, thinking difficulties, chronic muscle pain, headaches, weight gain, sleep issues, and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Healthy Tools to Manage Stress
It is important that we develop tools to manage stress to prevent the harm that a sustained stress response can cause. If you catch yourself feeling the stress building during the holiday season, try practicing some techniques to disrupt the fight or flight response:
1) Do things that relax you such as massage, meditation, deep breathing, journaling, reading, and/or engaging in a favorite hobby.
2) Exercise regularly (for a goal of 150 minutes a week).
3) Eat foods rich in vitamins and minerals, antioxidants (berries, dark leafy green, beans, pecans, dark chocolate), fiber (fresh produce, legumes, whole grain foods), and omega-3 fatty acids (walnuts, flax/chia seeds, fatty fish, canola/flaxseed oil) to help our bodies metabolize cortisol and reduce inflammation. Avoid overly processed foods, excess alcohol & caffeine, and foods high in sugar& refined carbohydrates (like pastries, cakes, white rice/pasta/bread).
4) Connect with people who support you.
5) Have fun and laugh to counteract the feeling of stress!
6) Get good quality sleep(ideally 7-9 hours of sleep per night).
7) Talk with your health care provider about developing coping skills for stress management.
To work with one of our clinicians on managing stress or find out more about how you can co-create your health, click here.