The Impact of Holiday Stress on the Mind and Body

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‘Tis the season for joyful gatherings with family, remembering your blessings, and celebrations. But it can also be a season full of expectations and stress as you scramble to deck the halls, bake endless batches of cookies, and pick out the perfect presents. Even festive demands create stress on the mind and body; understanding the way that your body copes with stress can help you employ strategies to enjoy all that the holidays offer without suffering the consequences of unneeded holiday stress.

The holidays bring many stressors, including a lack of time to fit in all the holiday parties, the pressure and financial burdens of picking out the perfect presents, the tensions of long-standing family dynamics, and the temptation to indulge in different foods—on top of your usual workload and obligations. It is no coincidence that you always come down with the annual cold or flu during or just after the winter holidays, or that your pants seem to shrink in January.

How Your Body Handles Stress

Stress refers to any type of perceived or real demand or threat—positive or negative. It is the way that your body reacts to and responds to demands that can have short- or long-term effects on your mind and body health due to the powerful mind-body connection.

Emotions such as anxiety or fear can trigger physiological changes in your body involving a cascade of stress hormones (like cortisol and epinephrine) as you attempt to maintain balance and ensure survival. This stress response involves neurological pathways and biochemical reactions throughout the body that you may recognize as a pounding heart, rapid breathing, muscle tension, sweating, and/or digestive upset. This is why major life events like holiday traditions, stressors like coping with family gatherings, or emotions like those that arise around giving and receiving gifts may trigger physical symptoms.

This combination of reactions to stress is also known as the fight-or-flight response since it evolved as an adaptive coping and survival mechanism, enabling you to react quickly to life-threatening situations. Unfortunately, in modern life multitasking, juggling too many things, lacking true meaningful connections, and bombardment with constant stimulation are a regular part of life, especially during the holiday season, making stress incessant in many people’s lives.

Over time, your body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as family difficulties, packed shopping malls, or the awkward office gift exchange. These types of chronic ongoing stressors can contribute to inflammation, irritability, anxiety, and chronic disease.

Holiday Stress and Metabolic Imbalances

The stress of the holidays can be a major contributor to weight gain and metabolic imbalances.

Cortisol is one of the hormones that your body releases in response to stress, helping to provide enough energy to cope with threats and challenges. During the stress response, blood sugar levels rise in an effort to enable fighting or fleeing from a threat, after which insulin is released to bring the blood sugar levels back into a normal range.

Insulin plays a key role in regulating the amount of glucose being taken from the bloodstream into the cells, but when this cycle is chronically and repeatedly activated due to stress, the signaling process can become impaired, and your cells can become resistant to insulin, which has far-reaching consequences. Some common metabolic consequences of stress and imbalanced cortisol levels are insulin resistance, blood sugar imbalances, and weight gain, especially in the belly area.

The threat of holiday weight gain is increased further when you are tempted with so many holiday treats and foods that may not normally be part of your lifestyle. Emotional eating, or turning to food to cope with the extra stress of the season, is often exacerbated during this busy time of the year.

A busy holiday season is not necessarily a bad thing, but there are some steps you can take to cope with holiday expectations and obligations to minimize undue stress and its impacts on your mind and body. The key is to build resiliency so that you can respond to stressful situations without triggering the alarm system every time.

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Recognize Your Holiday Stress Triggers

The holiday season brings many demands that can contribute to overwhelm. Recognizing the types of triggers that send you into a stress response can help you take steps to reprioritize your choices and plan ahead to find greater balance.

Go into the season with an awareness of potential holiday demands to give yourself the chance to mindfully choose where to spend your time and energy so that you can manage stressful triggers.

Common holiday stressors include:

  • Overextending yourself by accepting every holiday party invite
  • Feeling immense pressure to find the perfect present
  • Trying to make everything for your holiday meals from scratch
  • Going beyond your budget for gift and food shopping, adding to long-term financial stress
  • Excessive drinking or eating foods that aren’t ideal for your individual body or needs
  • Unrealistic and overly high expectations of what makes a “perfect” holiday season
  • Family tensions and arguments

Listen to Your Body

Learning to recognize the symptoms of stress and when they are becoming overwhelming or harmful to you is the first step in effectively managing it. Paying attention allows you to identify emotions as they arise, recognize when stress threatens to become overwhelming, and choose how you react and dedicate your time and energy.

Stress can lead to emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physical symptoms when it is too intense or too frequent. Red flags that can alert you to excessive stress include:

Build Resiliency to Enjoy the True Meaning of the Season

As you start to pay more attention to how you spend your energy and the ways in which different demands affect your body and mind, you can choose your priorities and begin to build resiliency. This will allow you to take control of the holiday chaos in a way that brings more enjoyment and meaning to the season.

Stress arises from the ways in which you respond to challenges, so a great start to reducing your holiday stress is to slow down enough to have the freedom to choose your priorities, recognize your interpretation of what is happening around you, and decide how you want to move forward. Remember the distinction between events and your experience of them. This allows you to start to leverage challenges as opportunities to grow and evolve, which in turns builds resiliency and buffers you from the negative impacts of stress.

One way to keep the holidays manageable is to plan ahead to keep realistic expectations. Reflect on what matters to you and make deliberate choices to create a season that feels meaningful. This allows you to set boundaries and focus on what's important to you so that you have the energy to savor each experience more.

With some planning and awareness, you can recapture the magic of the holidays. Understanding some of the science of stress and increasing your ability to pay attention to your body will help you to find peace, joy, and better health throughout the holiday season!

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.


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About the Author

Jennifer Weinberg

Preventive and Lifestyle Medicine Physician and Author
Dr. Jennifer Weinberg, MD, MPH, MBE is a preventive and lifestyle medicine physician, author, corporate wellness specialist, blogger, and the founder of the Simple | Pure | Whole Wellness Method. Weinberg offers innovative online wellness and education programs for individuals looking for sustainable optimal health as well as health care providers seeking health communications support and corporations wanting to integrate a comprehensive approach to corporate wellness. Get a free preview of her best-selling stress management guide ...Read more