As we enter the holiday season, stress increases in many people’s lives. Loving connections with family and friends can lead to a happily pounding heart and surges of emotion – a “good” kind of stress. But negative stressors are all around us, too, including unrealistic expectations placed on us by ourselves or others, arguments with friends or family and gatherings that don’t live up to our hopes. Simply seeing others who appear happy can increase our feelings of isolation or sadness.
Research shows that our minds are Velcrolike in their attraction for negative experiences, and Teflonlike for positive ones. We can get very stuck in this mindset, paying attention to what’s wrong instead of what’s right. Chronic worry and negative reactions may increase, and even cause, physical and psychological health problems.
One helpful antidote is to ask yourself: “What’s not wrong?” Then pay attention to something you appreciate or for which you feel grateful.
It’s important to learn to manage stress to stay healthy. The trigger most often reported for a heart attack, for example, is emotional upset – usually anger. People who have more stress tend to have more problems after a heart attack or other illness.
If you’re stressed, you probably already know it. But following are some telltale signs.
• Difficulty sleeping or changes in sleeping patterns
• Frequent crying
• Lower energy or fatigue
• Feelings of irritability, anger, fear, nervousness or helplessness
• Eating too little or not enough
The best way to beat stress is to practice good health habits. Exercising regularly, eating healthful foods and limiting fat, sugar and salt can lower stress levels and your chance of developing poor health.
You can help prevent health problems and relieve chronic conditions by participating in a stress-management program, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, to learn new ways of dealing with life’s daily challenges.
Following are a few more tips for how to acknowledge and lower stress.
• Breathe a little more slowly.
• Go for a walk.
• Lie down and close your eyes for a few minutes, paying attention to your breathing.
• Pay attention to “what’s not wrong.”
• Write down one to three things for which you feel grateful each day.
• Talk to a friend.
• Take small steps to change parts of your life that cause stress.
If you find yourself unable to manage your stress level in general, or the idea of upcoming holiday activities and expectations sends your stress levels soaring, consider talking to a doctor or therapist. Turn to friends and family for emotional support, and try to stick to a healthful exercise and eating plan.
Don’t let stress get the best of you this holiday season. You can make changes and get help to reduce your stress and improve your health.
Renée Burgard, licensed clinical social worker, is a mindfulness-based psychotherapist who teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction courses for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and other organizations.
The Palo Alto Medical Foundation and editor Arian Dasmalchi provide this monthly column.