Stress, Depression, and the Holidays: Tips To Help

Stress, Depression, and the Holidays
Tips To Help
by Jennifer LB Leese

The Christmas season is filled with busy schedules--parties, shopping, baking, cleaning, kids on school break, and chores. Along with all that fun there's tension and stress. For many, the holidays mean time off from regular activities, sharing good times and good food with family and friends. For others, this can be a frustrating and anxiety-provoking time, due to changes in work and exercise routines, and eating habits. The numerous guests we receive during the holidays also add stress.
When family gets together, some people may feel weighted down by expectations. Keeping a clear, controlled mind is hard to do when stressed.
In an effort to pull off a perfect Hallmark holiday, you may need help--that's a lot of peace and joy to cram into one week.
In our fast-paced, high-tech society, most people operate on overload. Our bodies, on the other hand, react to this overload in a low-tech manner by retreating to the basic "fight or flight" response mechanism.
When faced with a stressful situation the body produces stress hormones called cortisol and epinephrine. These hormones flood the bloodstream with an all-systems alert. Your heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, lungs pump harder, sweat glands let loose, and stomach acts up.
Unless you know how to cope with stress, you will suffer physically and mentally. Undesirable emotions, such as anxiety and depression, and unpleasant signs or symptoms, such as high blood pressure, headaches, backaches, and upset stomach, will take control, steering the body and the exhausted immune system into dangerous waters.
Actually, with some practical tips, you can minimize the stress and depression that often accompany the holidays. You may even end up enjoying the holidays more than you thought you would.
Things to Keep in Mind
* Seek support. If you feel isolated or down, seek out family members and friends, or community, religious or social services. They can offer support and companionship.
* Be realistic. As families change and grow, traditions often change as well. Hold on to those you can and want to. But understand in some cases that may no longer be possible.
* Set differences aside. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don't live up to all your expectations. One day during the holiday season isn't going to hurt anyone. Plus it'll relieve much of your stress. Chances are, they're feeling the effects of holiday stress too.
* Stick to a budget. Before you go shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend on gifts and other items. Then be sure to stick to your budget. If you don't, you could feel anxious and tense for months afterward as you struggle to pay the bills.
* Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make one big food-shopping trip. That'll help prevent a last-minute scramble to buy forgotten ingredients.
* Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, with no distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Go to your room, sit in the middle of the bed and let all your muscles relax. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music.
If you're looking for a physical way to get rid of the tension and stress, here's a few stress management techniques proven to effectively help you regain your peaceful state. Experiment, and find a few favorite relaxation tools to use during the holidays and long after.
Meditation: Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Concentrate on each breath. That's meditation in a nutshell. Sounds simple, right? Don't be fooled. Your mind doesn't want to be still and concentrate on the boring breath. No, there is too much to think about! The mind overflows with thoughts and questions: What will I fix for our Christmas dinner? I feel lousy. What did Alex mean? I still have to wrap gifts. Did I send Nana's gift yet?
Combine this cascade of thoughts with distractions--television commercials, kids at play, the dogs barking, loud traffic -- and you can see how you become stressed out. That's where minding your breath comes in handy. Meditation requires you to focus on each and every breath, and if you do it right you will learn to crowd out nonessential thoughts.
Exercise: Flee to the gym after work, go outside for a morning walk, stop by the tennis court with a friend--any kind of exercise will do. Regular aerobic (heart-pumping) exercise is particularly effective at controlling stress, and it improves your physical as well as your emotional health. Many people choose walking as their primary or only aerobic exercise because it's free, easy, and flexible. You can walk almost anywhere, you can set and adjust the pace, you can choose solitude or company, and you don't have to commit a set amount of time. Stressed at work? Walk briskly around the building. Tired out by tragic events in the news? Take a walk through the neighborhood. Need to clear your mind or develop new ideas? A walk works like drain cleaner, allowing thoughts to flow more easily.
The secret to maintaining an exercise program is to do what you enjoy--and do it regularly.
The ancient arts of yoga and t'ai chi combine movement, stretching, deep breathing, and concentration to tone your body and relax your mind. Through practice and patience, both these movement arts help accentuate the positives (strengthen and relax muscles and focus the mind) and eliminate the negatives (tension, anxiety, body aches). Yoga and t'ai chi are easy to learn and easy to incorporate into a daily exercise routine.
Massage therapy is based on our instinctive need for touch. Sometimes all it takes to relieve tension is a nice back rub.
Acupuncture: The Chinese have been using acupuncture, the introduction of hair-thin needles into specific points (called acupoints) on the body, for more than 2,500 years, but the West has been slow to catch on. Only recently have acupuncture and acupuncture clinics entered the Western health care scene. Before choosing an acupuncturist, get a recommendation from your physician.
More Alternative Therapies
Acupuncture isn't the only alternative therapy for stress reduction. Aromatherapy (using essential oils from plants and herbs) and hydrotherapy (using mineral water) works well for many. Alternative therapies are not backed by scientific research, and they shouldn't be viewed as a replacement for conventional medicine.
If you're considering alternative therapies, ask your doctor about incorporating them into your daily health care routine. And do some research first so you understand the pros and cons.
Remember one key to minimizing holiday stress and depression is knowing that the holidays can trigger stress and depression. Accept that things aren't always going to go as planned and you'll eliminate a good bit before the holidays even begin.